“ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE” (Movie Review)
Not all of them, unfortunately. Which is disappointing, because ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE, premiering on-demand today and hitting select theaters October 11, has won quite a bit of praise and anticipation for its U.S. release since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival seven long years ago.
The film has established a rep as an undeservedly buried treasure over that time, and I could give you links to a number of reviews proclaiming ALL THE BOYS to be a reinvention of the teen slasher film, one that takes a penetrating look at the social proclivities of the modern high-school student while delivering a series of subversive shocks to the system. But I’ve been to two screenings now, and I just don’t see it.
What debuting director Jonathan Levine (who went on to explore youthful angst with more success in THE WACKNESS, 50/50 and WARM BODIES) and scripter Jacob Forman have delivered here doesn’t so much undercut youth-stalker tropes as dress them up in the Emperor’s New Clothes of modern cinematic “style”: flash frames, jump cuts, varying film stocks, lens flares and ironic use of vintage pop songs. Underneath it all is a very familiar tale of a group of teenagers who travel out to an isolated location, where sex and drugs are discussed and indulged in before a sadistic killer begins laying waste to them with assorted weapons.
In the midst of it all is Mandy Lane herself (Amber Heard), a blonde beauty introduced as the center of considerable male attention at her Texas school. But this good-hearted gal remains unaffected by the leering and propositions, preferring the male company of platonic friend Emmet (Michael Welch). In an early pool-party sequence, the drunken young host, tacitly encouraged by Emmet, tries to impress Mandy by jumping from his house’s roof into the swimming pool. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite make it, resulting in an offscreen date with the concrete accompanied by one of the more unpleasant sound FX to be heard in recent features. This is certainly an attention-grabbing opening; too bad it has little to do with the action that follows.
The story then leaps forward about a school year as Amber, who has understandably become rather alienated from Emmet, accepts an offer to join several classmates on a weekend getaway to a remote ranch house while its owners, the parents of fellow student Red (Aaron Himelstein), are away. Needless to say, two other guys, Jake (Luke Grimes) and Bird (Edwin Hodge), are happy to have the opportunity to try for some alone time with Mandy, even as two other girls, Chloe (Whitley Able) and Marlin (Melissa Price), come along as well. Trying to keep a lid on the bad behavior is ranch hand Garth (Anson Mount), but nothing can keep the male hormones from surging in Mandy’s presence. Love has nothing to do with it; all the boys really want is to get in Mandy’s pants, which means that the title has more satiric edge than anything else in the movie.
The youthful performers are all good, and their dialogue and interactions generally play convincingly. But there’s nothing to their behavior that hasn’t been seen in numerous past teen pics: the guys are horndogs, the girls are catty and manipulative and none of them really do much, to the point where one of them even comments on how bored he is. (Ennui is a hard thing to capture on screen without it bleeding into the audience.) Aside from Mandy, none of this group are especially likable either, which means that the terror is dissipated even as they start falling prey to the mysterious someone skulking around the house and fields.
Actually, he’s only mysterious for about half the movie; as if in acknowledgment of how obvious it is anyway, the killer’s identity is revealed after the first couple of murders. That leaves little to do but wait for the next in the series of slayings, a couple of which give good, momentary cringe but don’t have much lasting impact. There’s the occasional unsubtle stab at tying the violence in to the victims’ hedonistic behavior—a girl who goes down on a guy is subsequently forced to deep-throat a shotgun—before the movie arrives at a twist ending that has a lot less to do with plausibly paying off the characters’ established psychology than it does with throwing one more curveball at the audience.
The good intentions of all involved are obvious, and it’s clear Levine is trying hard behind the camera, but ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE ultimately has little fresh to say about either the slasher genre or youth violence. Given some of what happens on screen, it’s rather ironic that the film was picked up and dumped by distribution suitors; now that it’s finally out in the States, it can at the very least serve as a retroactive signpost of better things to come for its director and star.