Review of "Sins of Our Youth," the Teen Gun Control Christmas-Themed Thriller You Didn't Want and Didn't Need
Note: I will be taking tomorrow off to celebrate Christmas. I hope all of you enjoy whichever holiday you choose to celebrate this festive season.
About six weeks ago, a small outfit called Breaking Glass Pictures sent me an invitation to view a screener for a movie they were releasing called Sins of Our Youth. I get about twenty such requests a week, and I usually don’t pay them much mind. But this one came with the offer of an interview with the movie’s star, Lucas Till, better known for his roles in the X-Men movie franchise and on CBS’s MacGyver. Regular readers will remember that I wrote back in the spring about the way that the algorithms that run our lives conspired to recommend to me every movie Till ever made (see here and here). I thought it would be a fitting way to end this year to bookend it with a conversation with Till. Madison Hill Public Relations, a small outfit in California doing PR for the film, agreed and told me they would make the arrangements. The outfit strung me along for more than a month, promising what they couldn’t deliver. (Rachel Madison Hill, owner of the PR firm, said she submitted my and others’ written interview questions to Till’s agent, Jim Osborne, where they vanished into the void. From what I heard secondhand, Till’s agent cited MacGyver’s demanding shooting schedule as the reason Till did not respond. For more than a month. That is one heck of a shoot.)
I tell you this lest you think that the Madison Hill’s and the distributor’s failure to lock down a commitment from the film’s star to do press for the movie before promising interviews to reporters and critics colored my review of the film. The review you are about to read was actually written back in November, before any of this happened, and it’s been sitting, waiting for a feature package I will never write. I made only one change: I updated the age of the director and writer since they have had a birthday pass since I wrote this.
Review of Sins of Our Youth
Sins of Our Youth is the kind of movie that one might call an interesting failure. This is a step above a total failure, and, in some respects, it is more compelling than a mediocre success. It’s hard to recommend an interesting failure, but compared with an unambitious and blandly formulaic film, it is perhaps the better option. On the other hand, my honest-to-God first thought in watching the movie was: “This film has really interesting lighting.” I assume that when you stop to notice the way that the lighting at first works to give the story an almost paranormal tinge before the heavy-handed overuse of lighting tricks calls too much attention to the staginess of the production that the story must leave a little to be desired.
Sins of Our Youth, produced by Arianna Huffington’s ex-husband Michael, debuted at a film festival two years ago, and only now is it getting a limited theatrical release with a nationwide video on demand release.
In the days leading up to Christmas, four young men in their teens take advantage of absentee parents to get drunk and shoot off some guns to destroy some holiday decorations. However, in their altered state, they accidentally kill a young boy. The action takes place in what seems to be a well-to-do suburb, but no one notices the gunfire or seems to care. This logical leap is necessary to force the foursome to confront the horror of their actions. Realizing that they will likely be put to death for the murder, they concoct a plan inspired by first-person shooter video games to exonerate one of their number by agreeing to hunt one another down until only one is left standing.
There’s a lot to like in the story of four high school friends whose recklessness leads to an unspeakable tragedy from which they are unable to recover. The performances are solid, the premise has potential, and, as I said, the lighting is interesting. But director Gary Entin and screenwriter Edmund Entin, 31-year-old twin brothers, bury the interesting parts of the story under an old-fashioned moralizing movie that, at times, makes Reefer Madness look restrained and sober in its approach to a very different social problem. The heavy-handed direction, which lards the film with operatic levels of emotional manipulation, actively works against the message that the movie is trying to sell, a message that would have worked better in either a minimalist film that went for unadorned realism or a pitch-black comedy.
According to the CEO of the company releasing the movie, Breaking Glass Pictures, the film, written by Edmund Entin, is explicitly intended as a movie with a message: “With such a strong cast and message, we hope the film will resonate with audiences and make them think twice when handling and firing a gun,” Rich Wolff said in a press release promoting the movie. Huffington was more expansive: “I am very proud to be associated with this film and hope that it has a transformational impact on the youth of our nation.” Taken together, you’d think that the movie was meant as an afterschool special about why kids shouldn’t use guns. But no one in the movie uses guns correctly, and the confusion in the film’s actual politics when it comes to guns undercuts it a bit. The film’s plot either argues that guns are simply evil for existing, or else it makes the case for keeping guns and ammunition more securely—and separately—stored. I’m pretty sure the filmmakers meant the former, but the mechanics of the plot actually suggest the latter and further make the case that the real problem with guns isn’t guns or gun owners but the arrogance and incompetence of those who fail to treat them as more than toys. In other words, guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I’m pretty sure that Huffington and the Entin brothers weren’t intending to make the NRA’s point for them, but such is the result. Anyone with a reasonable respect for firearms and a modicum of safety training could have avoided this entire situation, and that includes idiot teenagers.
Unfortunately, the movie spends so much time driving home its message on gun control that it utterly fails to tell the actual story it was trying to deliver. The confused screenplay is so obsessed with the clichés of high school movies that it includes subplots that serve no purpose in the film, including a pregnant girlfriend (that none of the main characters, so far as I can tell, actually knew was pregnant), a romantic rival, a big blowout party, and other staples of the teen-drama genre. Worse, the Entins make sure to drive their gun control message home to the ridiculous extent that every single character in the film, from the parents to the kids to the cops, mishandles guns, leading to compounding tragedy. Reader, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I actually laughed at the last and most dramatic death scene, with its overwrought Christian imagery and its unfortunate inversion of Black Lives Matter in having a black cop mistake a white teen’s cell phone for a gun, with the all too familiar consequences.
The worst of the movie’s sins, though, is that the brothers Entin just lay it on too thick. It’s not enough to have a message about guns. They feel the need to set the movie at Christmas to up the pathos, and they score the entire film with Christmas hymns about Jesus and salvation, as though to make absolutely sure that we understand exactly what they are saying. The line “fall on your knees” from “O Holy Night” is illustrated with laughable literalness. So intent are they on making sure that the movie delivers a sermon on the dangers of guns that they drop the premise altogether. Remember how I said that the four teens planned to hunt each other down? That’s certainly how the marketing materials promoted the film: “In a moment of desperation and fear that their lives are over, the youths construct a chilling plan reminiscent of a video game plot: they will hunt each other down until only one is left standing.” I won’t spoil it for you, but Edmund Entin lost the courage of his convictions and never followed through on the promise of the plot.
Really, with all of these elements, this movie would have worked so much better as a pitch-black comedy. And I think there is a good one that could have been scraped together from these elements.
None of this is the fault of the young cast (well, younger compared to me, I guess), led by X-Men and MacGyver star Lucas Till, who turns in a solid performance, anchoring an unsteady story by giving it a calm, competent, and rational center. At times, though, he seems to be acting in a different and better movie than the one we are watching. The other actors likewise do a terrific job imbuing clichéd and inconsistent characters with the semblance of life. To an extent, it is a thankless task, particularly for Mitchel Musso (Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy’s Law), whose years of voiceover acting imbue his performance with sly emotion that almost hides the ridiculousness of his character. No one could have come out looking good from a scene where the classroom television conveniently starts speaking directly to him while both are spotlighted, but Musso earns points for trying. It was a scene, though, from a comedy, not a drama, and belongs in a different version of this movie.
Sins of Our Youth played in Los Angeles and selected cities earlier this month. It is now available on DVD and video on demand.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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