Waiting in line with 18 to Party

18 to Party peaks early, which is one thing a party should avoid. Its opening shot is also its most memorable image: a slow truck across a tableau of teens, decked out in the height of 80s small-town style, staring defiantly into the camera. It’s a sequence that would be right at home in Dazed and Confused, the obvious forerunner to Party. The sub-genre twist in this new film—and the joke—is that the lineup outside the party turns out to be the place where everything happens. (Detractors might say, where nothing happens.) It’s a movie about waiting and uncertainty and the friction and anger that can arise from both. That definitely makes it a movie for our present time.

But in 18 to Party, the year is 1984, the sun is setting, and in line at the club is the place to be…though our underage ensemble has been asked to wait around back where the eighth-graders belong. So these kids, with nostalgia-ready names like Shel and Missy and Rizzo, talk and joke and argue about PCs and Reagan and their town’s recent UFO sightings. Friendships shift and romances blossom, and if you’re wondering by now if the whole movie is just kids talking outside a club, the answer is yes.

But there’s good news about that: the actors are great. They’re not great like the ensemble of young actors in 2017’s It, who were charismatic and technically proficient and well-balanced. They’re great because they mostly feel like real kids. Tanner Flood’s performance as anxiety-wracked Shel, who slowly emerges from the ensemble as a sort of protagonist, is offbeat and vulnerable and contradictory in a way that feels unusual. And writer-director Jeff Roda has managed something similar with the whole cast. They’re bristling and overconfident and mean in ways that more rosy nostalgia pieces tend to brush aside. In too many movies, the kids talk like there are adults around. In this one, they sound like no-one’s listening and they’re trying to find out what they can get away with. That rings true to this critic’s ear.

But Roda’s script doesn’t find much to do with the stagey setup beyond, well, stagey beats. So we get foreshadowing about Lanky, a problem kid who some say wouldn’t dare come around after mysterious events in the past. We get barbed dialogue and subtle digs between two female characters that build to a big reckoning. We get a Chekhov’s BB gun, complete with a clever setup in which a character casually describes the level of injury the gun could cause with one pump, two pumps, three… And, for the second half, we get lots and lots of angsty revelations. More, at least one or two more, than the movie can hold.

Whether you like this movie may depend a bit more than usual on whether or not you want to like it. It’s a plucky little production—a micro-budget period piece with an underage ensemble cast is an ambitious choice. The stars are likeable and remarkably good. But those who’d rather be at the party than with the drama-ridden tweens out back need not apply.