Directed by: John Ferrer
Starring: Jack Schram, Aubrey Curtis, Eddie Long, Jonathan Daniels, Bob Daye, Susan Cato, Joe Chang
This alternately engaging and clunky comedy comes from local production outfit, Papercookie. Who or what is Papercookie? According to the press release, it's "a film production collective of art/film school dropouts who left college to pursue do-it-yourself independent filmmaking." Comprised of John Ferrer (writer-director of Grownups), Aubrey Curtis and Joe Chang, the group left the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and relocated to Asheville almost two years ago. During that time, they made a short film, Leaving Here, and the feature Grownups -- both of which are making their debut this week (Wednesday, June 21, 7 p.m.) at the Fine Arts Theatre in a benefit showing to help secure financing for their next production, Joe Chang's Neutral. (If Grownups is any barometer, Neutral could well be one of the more interesting local productions in some time.)
Grownups tells the story of three childhood friends -- Matt Cooper (Jack Schram), Brooke Johnson (Aubrey Curtis), Cody Johnson (Eddie Long) -- who have taken Peter Pan Syndrome to new heights. In a prologue featuring them as children, they -- along with a fourth friend -- promise Jarvis the Jackalope Jockey (a disturbing-looking guy dressed as a giant rabbit) that they will never grow up. The film moves 15 years into the future to find that the three have kept that promise -- alarmingly so.
They appear to be in their early 20s, but they hardly act it, having become stuck in time as their childhood selves -- despite the fact that there are glimmerings of something like adulthood in the relationship of Matt and Brooke, who are both precariously employed at a skating rink. The film does an excellent job of establishing -- without overly romanticizing -- their childlike (and often childish) behavior. Matt is a bit of a natural bully and can't resist making fun of any kid who can't skate as well as he does. Brooke, on the other hand, is so desperate to be liked and make "other kids" feel better that she readily hands out free pizza coupons with very little provocation. (The coupons are only supposed to be handed out if "tears or blood" are involved in a skating mishap.) Not surprisingly, their antics are not favored by their employer.
Things get complicated when the fourth member of their childhood group, Hunter Metcalf (Jonathan Daniels), returns to town. He missed out on their deliberate arrested development, because his family was moving away soon after the promise to Jarvis. As a result, he's grown up -- becoming a school teacher, getting married, and calling himself David (because Hunter "sounds kind of childish"). His presence turns out to be mildly threatening to the pair and the third member of the group, Brooke's brother Cody, because, as a grownup, he's too in touch with the reality they've managed to avoid.
Now, if you're wondering just where such a set-up can go, don't feel alone; I was, too. But writer-director Ferrer has a workable plot at hand when Brooke gets in trouble with the law for kissing a 5-year-old boy in a play-park, demonstrating the notable downside of adults living a constructed, childhood fantasy. This results in Hunter stepping in and attempting to defend her in court. His efforts provide the film with its final structure.
No, it doesn't all work. There's a fine line between charming and creepy when dealing with 20-somethings who act like 5-year-olds, and on some occasions the film crosses that line. Thankfully, the cast generally keeps this in check -- helped a good bit by the often beleaguered and constantly bewildered supporting cast, who simply can't decide how to deal with the overage kids. Bill Stanish as the judge trying Brooke's case is particularly good in this capacity (one highlight comes when he offers her a juice-box during the trial).
Moreover, the film is cut from the same cloth as so many '60s and '70s works that present mentally disturbed characters in an almost mystical fashion as being "better" than sane folks -- a sub-genre that has always been a little specious to say the least. Still, Grownups is adept at looking at both sides of its issue, and scores many of its points through the regret of the film's genuine grownups that they can't be like the would-be kids. (The judge's summing up of the case is a charming variant on the cab driver who speaks out against normalcy in Mary Chase's 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Harvey.)
On a scripting and acting level, much more of Grownups works than doesn't. Ferrer's direction may be a little too inclined to pointless, hand-held camerawork, but he keeps the film moving in a workmanlike manner that's refreshing in an area of filmmaking all too often marred by attempts at artiness rather than the nuts-and-bolts of the job at hand.
Imperfect, but very promising, Grownups is well worth a look, and Papercookie is worth keeping your eye on.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke