Coming-of-age films are often centered around something big like death or sex, but most people grow up with hurdles built on somewhat lesser obstacles. Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe) is one such person. His high school years are winding down, his friends are moving on and his mother is reminding him that college life is right around the corner, but the challenge facing him right this minute is his absolute love for all things Halloween.
Writer/director/wunderkind Emily Hagins is a twenty-year-old filmmaker who made her first feature at the age of 12 and scored a nationwide distribution deal with her last film, My Sucky Teen Romance. Her new movie, Grow Up, Tony Phillips, once again presents a casual, charming and youth-centric world, but she makes some important steps forward in her professional growth too. Unfortunately though it’s a bit of a “one step forward, one step back” situation.
We first meet Tony trying to defend his knight costume to his two best friends, Elle (Katie Folger) and Craig (Devin Bonnee), who both think it’s in his best interest to lose this childhood affliction and not wear a costume to the school’s contest. It’s just not something seniors should do. Tony’s other friend, Mikey (Caleb Barwick), is a smart and imaginative kid with school troubles of his own, but while Tony is paid to babysit him, the two are actually good friends who bond over the impending holiday. The last “kid” here is Tony’s older, but far less mature cousin Pete (A.J. Bowen) who’s staying with Tony’s family while he irons out some money issues.
The pressures facing Tony go beyond the familial and peer varieties to include an act of bullying that threatens to derail his motivation and interests, and it becomes an unintentionally created connection with his young friend when it’s discovered that Mikey is facing his own schoolyard bully. Adding to the drama is cousin Pete’s shady dealings and near irredeemable actions which leave Tony wondering if friendship is as illusory and fake as the Halloween masks he wears every year.
Hagins’ film works best as a light and casual comedy about one teen’s refusal to let go of the thing he loves in exchange for a pass into adulthood. Tony’s a dork to be sure, but he’s a harmless one, and Vespe brings a real playfulness to the character that makes his interactions with both Mikey and his own age-appropriate friends believable and fun. There are some legitimate laughs to be found here, but they mostly come from two sources. The first is Bowen’s dry delivery previously only hinted at in his usual indie horror fare, and the second is Byron Brown whose turn as a faux police officer brings some of the film’s biggest chuckles.
Produced by Paul Gandersman and Peter Hall (who, in the effort of full disclosure, I know personally), the film is also a step up on the technical front. Starting with some truly appealing jack-o-lantern-themed opening credits the movie simply looks better and more, for lack of a better word, professional than its predecessors. The score and original songs by Christopher Thomas, tighter edits and stronger scene transitions add to the film’s overall improved feel.
But in her continued growth as a filmmaker Hagins has added some serious story elements that are left dangling in all but the most superficial ways. They play havoc with the tone and reveal an inexperienced screenwriter treading on unfamiliar ground. Pete’s antics are meant to entertain, but his irresponsibility leads to a violent scene that viewers are apparently meant to laugh at. Worse, the bullying incident against Tony is left free of repercussions. This isn’t a plea for some kind of onscreen revenge, mind you, but to show that the scene and its aftermath represent a major narrative gap that paints a somewhat ugly tint across an otherwise bright and charming film.
The assault on Tony isn’t as simple as a bucket of pig blood dumped on him at prom. It’s an act of real violence that Hagins uses as a minor trigger before dropping it and its implications for some comedy and feel-good shenanigans. The film’s message about maintaining your individuality is tainted by one that says you should expect to be assaulted for your beliefs and there’s nothing you can do about it. Adults aren’t a real concern in the film (understandably), but the complete absence of any authority figure or response post-attack shows a screenwriter with an uncertain grasp on character and narrative responsibility. The reason for the scenes’ inclusion is clear, but Hagins seems unable or uninterested in following through on their dramatic and more grown-up implications.
Grow Up, Tony Phillips is an indie film written and directed by a twenty year old at the (relative) beginning of a promising career. That’s not a knock or a criticism; that’s a reality. Growing pains and missteps are visible in the early stages of every young director’s career, but the take away here is that script problems aside, Hagins has already shown clear improvement from one film to the next. She’s kept her spirit and playfulness intact, and once she figures out how to mesh that with bigger, deeper stories the world will be her pumpkin.
The Upside: Charming enough; A.J. Bowen finds his lighter side with very funny results; exciting to watch/chart the progress of an incredibly young filmmaker
The Downside: Script drops the ball when it tries to tackle serious issues; Vespe seems uncomfortable in heavier scenes; unclear who exactly the target audience is
On the Side: J.C. De Leon, Luke Mullen and Brian Salisbury (who have written for FSR) are the least threatening cinematic thugs since Dynamo sang opera in The Running Man