A couple of kids who are deeply in love with making movies have made a movie about kids deeply in love with making movies, and it is one of the most joyously thrilling treats of the summer, a love letter to childhood pleasures that last a lifetime.
Producer Steven Spielberg and writer-director J.J. Abrams may be chronological grown-up, but as this movie makes clear, they could have just as much fun with a super-8 camera and a box of M-80’s. Representing them in the film are Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney), middle schoolers in 1979 Lillian, Ohio, who are working on a movie to enter into a competition. In that pre-digital time, they are making it with a Super-8 camera, on film that is bought and developed at the camera store. Charles is the writer and director. Joe is in charge of make-up and special effects. Cary (Ryan Lee) in charge of explosions and Martin (Gabriel Basso) is their star. It is a zombie movie. But Charles has been reading about film-making and realizes that he has focused too much on scares and special effects. An article explains that the movie works better if there is a reason to feel something for the characters, so he decides that Martin’s detective character will have a wife. And that is how Alice (the luminous Elle Fanning) joins the group.
They sneak out one night to film a scene at the train station. When a truck drives onto the tracks as the train approaches, there is a spectacular crash. The kids run, but the camera keeps filming. What it shows will be the key to solving the real-life mystery about what was on the train.
As they wait for it to be developed, increasingly disturbing developments occupy Joe’s father, Lillian’s deputy sheriff. All the town’s dogs disappear. Engines are ripped out of cars. The sheriff and a gas station attendant are missing. The army has taken control of the crash site and will not tell anyone what is going on. The adults are so distracted that the kids are able to pursue their investigation — and their film-making — almost without supervision.
It feels in the best possible sense like a newly discovered Spielberg film from the “Goonies”/”E.T”/”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” era, with its suburban setting and kids’-eye sense of wonder and adventure. The meta-humor about the film within a film (stay through the credits to see what the final version looks like) is witty and heart-warming. “Production values!” says Charles as though it is a magical incantation. Which, in a way, it is. No one understands the language of film better than these guys and their evident pleasure in the economical story-telling through visuals adds to the dazzle. A worker silently removes the “784” from the sign that says “safety is our most important goal” and replaces it with a 1. When we then see Joe sitting by himself outside, we know what happened and feel his loss. Later, he pins a lost dog notice to a bulletin board and the camera pulls back to show us the entire board is covered with notes about lost dogs. The camera is in every way a part of the masterful storytelling here.
Like Charles, Abrams and Spielberg know that all the special effects and jump-out-at-you thrills in the world won’t resonate unless we care about the people in the story. This is definitely a movie about characters. The themes of parental estrangement are not always gracefully handled, but Abrams’ ability to put us inside the children’s world is breathtaking. All of the kids are great but Courtney and Fanning are marvels. A scene where he applies zombie make-up to her face is filled at the same time with longing, amazement, and unspoken understandings and is almost unbearably tender. Best of all is the way Abrams shows us that it is not just the happenstance of the movie footage that gives the kids the unique ability to solve the mystery and get everyone home safely; it is the way that particular moment poised between childhood and growing up gives them for a brief moment the unfiltered sense of wonder that makes everything in the world a discovery of equal magnitude and a universe of endless possibilities. It is a privileged moment that he lets us share, and a rare film that makes use of genre without getting overwhelmed by it. We get all of the popcorn pleasures of the stunts and special effects but we get the deeper pleasures of a great story, masterfully told.