Sometime between the when I reviewed Natural Selection nearly three years ago and Super Dark Times almost a year ago, the public relations teams representing a certain kind of independent film seem to have gotten it into their heads that I am the right person to review movies about the friendships of teenage boys. I’m not sure how I got pegged into that niche, but I receive an outsize number of screeners for a remarkably similar parade of films exploring the challenges of growing up young, white, and privileged in a world where guns are easy to come by but authenticity and genuine social connections are not. To be honest, the movies are so similar that I have a hard time remembering which act of violence occurred in which one. Was Sins of Our Youth the one where best friends are torn asunder and end up bathed in blood? Trick question. It was all of them.
The latest version of the story is Reach, a new independent film about a bullied high school student whose best friend helps him overcome his depression. The film goes into release on October 19, but I wouldn’t rush to the theater. You’ve seen this movie before—at least three times, if you watched the films listed above—and as a copy of a copy, it is not as sharp as its original.
The 84-minute Reach bills itself as a “high-school drama about bullying from the perspective of the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders.” This is technically true but a bit like describing Westworld as a show about theme park security. In a June review and on many websites, the film is listed as a comedy or comedy-drama. I’m not sure how the original cut ran, but the film as it will be released this month is neither a comedy nor very funny. Dropped plot lines and pointless characters suggest that there was a longer version that was different and perhaps more coherent.
The film tells the story of a depressed high school senior named Steven Turano, who confesses to an online forum that he intends to commit suicide. As played by former Disney star Garrett Clayton (Teen Beach Movie, Hairspray Live!), Steven isn’t just depressed and suicidal; he is a complete void. He is possessed of no character traits, and Clayton, who can be very good in the right roles, makes some unusual acting choices, modulating his voice to an unpleasant half-whisper and limiting eye contact and restricting body language. It’s meant to suggest Steven’s mental state, but instead of making the character sympathetic, the overly reserved performance makes it hard for the audience to form an emotional attachment to him. (Regular readers will recall last seeing in these pages helping to promote some fake facts on a TV travel show for kids.)
Anyway, Steven is being bullied by his former best friend, who is taking out on Steven the anger he feels because his father became abusive after Steven’s father had an affair with his mother. There are some other melodramatic details that get fleshed out in maudlin flashbacks to what seems to be Steven’s seventh birthday, the last time the boys were friends. Steven’s father is also an unsympathetic and emotionally abusive hard-ass, and Bojesse Christopher (True Detective) plays him as a barking cartoon of a distant, repressed father.
Steven’s life begins to turn around when the new kid in school, Clarence West, intervenes during an instance of bullying. Clarence takes a shine to Steven for reasons that are never explained and are frankly inexplicable, and Johnny James Fiore (who co-wrote the script and previously appeared Private Dicks) gives the film’s most interesting performance, playing Clarence as a male manic pixie dream girl, knowingly artificial but fully inhabiting a collection of 1980s and 1990s high school movies clichés—part Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, part Can’t Hardly Wait, and entirely unrealistic as a teenager. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend entirely on whether you buy what Fiore is selling. I found his character charming, but it is not impossible to read his efforts to protect and engage Steven in a darker light, as a smile pasted over domination and manipulation. We aren’t meant to read the characters’ friendship that way, but the script and the direction leave out too much to forestall such a reading.
This gets to the biggest problem with Reach. It’s 2018. Gay marriage has been legal for years. Except among the most staunchly reactionary, homosexuality is at least tolerated if not accepted among the majority of Americans. Reach is set in a performing arts school, makes sidelong jokes about the LGBTQ identities of most of the students (courtesy of costar Joey Bragg from Disney’s Liv and Maddie, in an unpleasant wasted role as a gay douchebag) and tells what seems clearly intended to be a same-sex romance and yet absolutely refuses to engage with the motif it so obviously wants to discuss. For inexplicable reasons, the film never utters the word “gay,” only anti-gay slurs, and explicitly identifies the villains as gay, while giving Steven and Clarence no identifiable sexuality. This becomes doubly strange because Clayton is himself openly gay and played a gay porn star in James Franco’s recent black comedy about the gay porn industry, and in the film Fiore not only performs his role as though he were in a romantic comedy, but even visually references 1980s teen romances in wooing Steven.
I suppose it counts for something to have more than one former Disney star subverting their squeaky-clean Disney image, but American Vandal already matched that last year.
The first two-thirds of the film are a collection of clichés, but serviceable. Fiore is generally enjoyable, and his scenes with Clayton are sweet. But the last third is a mess, as though chunks of the original story were randomly excised. One character suffers a major substance abuse issue that emerges virtually out of nowhere (though technically introduced in a brief throwaway scene) and disappears with scarcely a word of explanation. For being set in a performing arts school, the film makes virtually no use of the setting, and even the obligatory scene at the high school play could have been swapped out for any other activity with no bearing on the plot. The film’s climax is the closest the movie approaches to comedy because of the unrealistic piling on of circumstances which recalled both Super Dark Times and the season finale of 13 Reasons Why’s second season, but was inferior to both. I won’t even dignify the resolution except to say that it came out of nowhere and violated the rule of “show, don’t tell.” It was an ending that tacked a series of clichés onto the story without setting up motivating them.
As I watched Reach I wrote a number of notes about all of the movies it seemed to imitate unsuccessfully, but near the end it dawned on me what I was actually watching. The movie is Twilight. Once I realized that this was a same-sex version of Twilight, it started to make sense why Clayton’s Steven is such a void. He, like Kristen Stewart in that movie, is trying to be a blank onto which the audience can project themselves. It also explains why he is so willing to give himself over to a bigger, stronger, more dominant “friend,” basically the way Bella in Twilight fantasized about losing herself in Jacob. I won’t give away the ending, but the symbolism reinforces my point.
Reach is not a successful movie. It is an ABC Afterschool Special that tells a story more at home in the 1980s or 1990s than today. I have a hard time imagining that the teens it wants to reach could watch this without asking what, exactly, it was trying to say.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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