The title of this film recalls a time in the 1970s when the thought of making a movie and entering it in a contest would fill any 13-year-old living in small-town America with wonder. First you’d have to get hold of a Super 8 camera and cartridges (or is it rolls) of film. Figure out some way to hook up a tape recorder and come up with a story. Influenced by the “cool” movies of the time, it would probably involve zombies and the like that are infiltrating the country, perhaps with a little sappy love story thrown in–the girl saying things like, “Oh, John, don’t go. Please I’m so frightened. What will happen to you? What will happen to us?” Then, there are the location shots which would probably involve photographing little models and, for lots more realism, shots indoors and outdoors in the outskirts of town. Afterwards, of course, the film would have to be sent out to be processed and later edited and spliced by hand.
So far so good as far as our current film is concerned. Luckily we have a boy in charge whose bright idea this is, a small group of pals including one to play the main role, another nerdy-looking kid who loves to shoot off firecrackers and such for sound effects and play a toothy member of the undead, and a really nice kid and pal who is perfectly willing to provide the props, and someone else who handles the sound and walkie-talkies for intercom purposes. All the kids need now is a swell-looking girl. This being a time when parents had a great deal of control, the kids in this story have to sneak around and find ways to slip out of the house without being discovered, or grounded or thwarted in any way. In this light, the director/producer has to do a lot of pre-production work while hiding out in some special space in the cellar while calling back to Mom that he’ll be right there. The really nice kid (and our lead) has to skirt around his widowed dad, a very strict local deputy sheriff who, in turn, wants his son to stay away from the kids in question while having no idea what they’re up to. To make matters worse, this dad hates the ne’er-do-well father of the girl the kids desperately need for the female lead. More complications ensue because both the boy director and the nice kid have fallen for the girl and the girl’s father wants his daughter to stay away from the deputy sheriff’s son. All this as the plucky girl (who, doubtless doesn’t have a license) spirits the whole crew away in her father’s car for a shoot at dusk at a railway location. So far so good again, as we are drawn into the kids’ plight, excitement and sense of wonder and expectation.
So what we have here is just the first half of this movie, and it is a lot of fun to watch these kids, these young actors. Joel Courtney plays the son of the Deputy Sheriff (Kyle Chandler) and is the leading actor of the film. He is a “teen” actor but he does carry most of this story from beginning to end. And he does it very well. In the story he is the best friend to the super-8-film-production’s director, Charles, played by Riley Griffiths, who runs around trying to get all the details and hard jobs done all at the same time. As noted, the main teen characters steal out at night from their bedrooms at home to go “on location” to that nearby train station. They set up all their gear, with sound effects, tape equipment and camera settings, and make-up by Joe (Mr. Courtney), along with rehearsals for scenes in the boys’ movie, “The Case.” Charles has gotten that special girl from school, Alice (Elle Fanning), to take a big part in his movie but he has never seen her act before. The rehearsal on the platform of the train station with Alice and the leading man (Gabriel Basso) is so believable and sweet and touching that naturally we quickly care for Alice as the heroine of both “The Case” and “Super 8.” Ms. Fanning does a fine job in both films.
At the train station things begin to happen which are outside Charles’ or anyone else’s power to control. An explosion occurs which at first seems like a great sound effect by one of the boys, but, of course it isn’t, and in fact the size and extent of this explosion introduces the second half of the real movie, “Super 8.” After this we enter another world all together. If “The Case” is about zombies, “Super 8” is about sci-fi-Monster-CGI-effects movies and for these reviewers, the fun is over. Not only the fun, but the respect for the kind of work accomplished in the first half.
It is important to give credit to J.J. Abrams, the writer and director of “Super 8,” especially for this first half of the film. He certainly catches the feel of the place and time of 1970’s small town America from the style of the ranch houses, to the cars, to the clothes and all the details in between. The casting of the boys helping to make Charles’ movie is excellent as well, of course, as the teen girl Ms. Fanning as Alice. They all work hard, stay inside their characters, and work so well together as if they were real friends. Mr. Chandler as Joe’s widowed father and deputy sheriff is the best of the adults in the film; he has to bridge the space between adults and kids in the story which he does well along with trying to help his son deal with the loss of his mother as well as solving the difficult over-the-top mayhem of the second half of the movie.
If it is possible to see just the first half of a film (about one hour), then perhaps that is what should be encouraged here. But if you must stay for the rest, get extra popcorn and ear plugs to see you through and stay for the final credits. There, finally, you will see the movie the kids were making all on their own, and recapture what it was like to rely on your imagination, ingenuity and little pocket money to realize your special dream.