SXSW 2011 Review: MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE
**Note: I am proud to call Emily Hagins my friend. She is one of few people I can call to go watch movies like STEP UP 3D and NEVER SAY NEVER and not feel embarrassed. However, my job here is to be objective and review her movie like I would any other. I would be doing Emily no favors by glossing over any issues I may have with her film.**
At 18, Emily Hagins is already an accomplished filmmaker. She finished her first film, PATHOGEN, when she was 13 and her second film, THE RETELLING, was unleashed a few years after that. Emily has even been the subject of a documentary, ZOMBIE GIRL: THE MOVIE. Now, with MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE, Emily has stepped up her game to a level that will force even the most skeptical viewers to take her seriously. The film is good enough that her age can no longer be considered a novelty - it should be a surprising footnote, if anything.
Kate (Elaine Hurt) and Allison (Lauren Lee) are best friends and frequenters of the yearly SpaceCON. This being the last year of high school and, with ollege on the horizon, this is a particularly poignant year for the pair. However, the weekend takes a strange turn when Paul (Patrick Delgado), a retail clerk with whom Kate has exchanged flirtatious glances in the past, shows up at the con and accidentally bites her. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that, earlier in the night, Paul himself was bitten by a vampire named Vince (Devin Bonnée). Now Kate, Allison, and Paul, as well of a pair of geeks-in-the-know, Jason (Santiago Dietche) and Mark (Tony Vespe), must combine their knowledge of vampires to find a way to cure Kate and Paul while dodging Vince and the potential suckiness of teen romance.
MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE works as well it does because, like most amalgamations of genres, it doesn't lean heavily on one aspect at the expense of others. At its core, the film is a comedy, a romance, and a vampire film in equal measure. The elements combine together to make a film that, while not wholly original, captures something special - a true teen voice. For those in their teenage years, the lingo, the body language, the awkward social encounters will all feel genuine. For those well beyond high school (including this reviewer), the characters may not be directly accessible but they feel genuine nonetheless. Hagins benefits from both her youth, her previous film experience, and her vampire film knowledge to craft her most assured script to date.
As a director, Hagins shows she is more than up to the task of keeping a feature-length film moving at a pace appropriate for its target audience. MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE starts off quickly and loses no steam along the way. Not only that, she has made the best use of her minimal locations and, combined with consistently impressive cinematography, has created an identifiable world in which her characters can exist. With some truly catchy soundtrack selections and a playful score by composer Christopher Thomas, the musical world of SpaceCON and its young visitors is rich. Makeup and effects are all top-notch and used sparingly and for maximum effect. There are many witty details to be discovered in the film, such as the lisps the kids develop as a result of the fangs - an apt metaphor for braces which can be another awkward oral barrier to budding teen romance.
For various reasons (not limited to the perceived lack of general ability and the creepiness of viewers lusting after younger characters), it's not often one sees real teenagers employed in productions about their own kind. However, this film is called MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE so the expectation of teenage actors is a valid one and one that is met. Emily has assembled a mostly worthy cast for her production, Hurt being a standout. She has that plucky spirit of a girl-geek, a young woman unafraid to dive headfirst into a world dominated mostly by men. It's that gusto that allows her to believably portray a girl nervous about boys but with the strength to overcome the inconvenience of accidentally being turned into a vampire.
Other lead performers all have the look down for sure but sometimes struggle with the emotional beats that can be, at times, a bit clumsy in the script. Dialogue is infamously hard and conversation rhythms in the film sometimes fall a bit flat. One can mostly forgive young, untrained actors for these infrequent moments, though. Tony Vespe as Mark is another highlight, earning the most laughs with his free-spirit, carefree attitude about everything going on around him, regardless of the implausibility. A few side characters are sprinkled throughout and seem to exist solely for additional humor. While one would generally question the existence and utility of said characters, the film moves along too fast (and those bit player are too funny) for anyone to dwell on such concerns.
There does seem to be a missed opportunity in MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE. The TWILIGHT phenomenon is addressed in the film (in fact the movie is knowingly referential towards all sorts of vampire lore) and at times it feels like it is going to become a clever dissection of the vampire love story craze. The intentions of the film, though, end up not being so. It really is, simply put, a cute love story with vampires. While ultimately one has the feeling the finished product is the movie Hagins absolutely intended to make, the near misses with full-on satire leave a feeling of tonal imbalance. There are bites, fights, blood, and bad words but the film is not edgy, the darker elements mainly act as punctuation that serves as breaks in the sweetness.
MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE is a movie to be admired, for sure. Hagins premiered her film in a 1,200 seat theater as the youngest director at SXSW. The film marks an exponential leap forward in her filmography in all regards, but she will be the first to admit she has much room to grow. Those unfamiliar with Austin, Emily, and previous works should not worry, they will still find a lot to love in the film. MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE speaks a universally familiar geek language and while the target audience is an age group that may be a distant memory for most, the film taps into the awkward and alien nature of romance, especially at that stage in life. It will be interesting to see if Emily readdresses similar themes later in her career (perhaps with a bit more bite bred from experience) and concludes that post-teen romance can be just as sucky.