Monday, June 27, 2011

Super 8

If J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield was the Godzilla for the millienial generation, then Super 8 is the millienial's The Goonies. Or E.T. Or any other late-70s, early-80s Steven Spielberg classic. From the opening moments when Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment logo popped onto the screen, I was flooded with a wave of nostalgia. Not the kind of nostalgia from the film’s setting, per se; I was born in 1984, and Super 8 is set in smalltown Ohio in 1979. Nostalgia, in that it made me feel like a kid again. Playing hockey in the street. Building forts in abandoned lots in the neighborhood. Coming up with elaborate plots to hit certain siblings with water balloons. Star Wars. Daydreaming about being the hero who saves the attractive girl in school from the terrorist/alien invasion. Being total dorks yet thinking we were the coolest people in the universe. Thus were the years of my early adolescence. Maybe yours too. These are the images Super 8 generates in my memory, bittersweet as I recall my own naiveté.

That childhood innocence is quickly lost these days. With the advent of mass media, fast-paced technology, and systemic abandonment from adults, young people are often left to fend for themselves and figure out this frightening world alone. Yet young people can have large imaginations and ambitious visions for the future, allowing them to navigate troubling situations with resilience, courage, and even hope. One such young person in Super 8 is Joe Lamb, wonderfully portrayed by Joel Courtney. After the accidental death of his mother, Joe finds solace in creating an indie zombie movie with his cadre of goofball friends. His emotionally-distant father (Kyle Chandler, from Friday Night Lights) deals with the pain by pouring himself into his police work, leaving Joe to navigate the grief on his own. One night, the friends gather to shoot a scene at a train station, only to find themselves running for their lives as a pickup truck causes a massive derailment. Their camera is still rolling, and it captures some..."thing" escaping from the train.

While Super 8 could be considered a thrilling sci-fi monster movie, its true strength lies in its characters and storytelling, The group of boys making the movie are as authentic as they come. They yell and cuss, make fun of each other often, yet have a deep loyalty to each other as friends and filmmakers. Joe's best friend, Charles, is the hilarious loudmouth and film director; Cary is the pyro who likes explosives way too much; Martin isn't too bright, but he's fun to have around. I've had these same guys in my youth group, in my small group--you probably have too. They talk and act like young teens, which is the power of having great young actors. When they invite Alice (Elle Fanning) to come into their group, it's for the sake of their film's story (and Charles' crush on her). Alice strikes up a connection with Joe, and the two quickly become the support system they've been lacking for their respective grieving. When Alice offers a late-night confession about her own guilt and pain to Joe, it's one of the more affecting scenes I've seen in any film.

This is a film about the power and potential of young people. Roger Ebert rightly points out, "It is a requirement of these films that adults be largely absent. The kids get involved up to their necks, but the grown-ups seem slow to realize strange things are happening." While adults struggle to understand the truth of what's happening to the Ohio town--or they manipulate situations in order to control them, as the military leaders reveal--the kids are the real adults here. Courageous, perceptive, able to take responsibility and decisive action, only limited by their age, not their maturity. Yet their youthful passion and innocence is what makes them far more successful than any adult could ever be. They are the ones who know the secrets of the town, can sneak past government checkpoints unnoticed, and can make brave last-stand speeches in climactic moments of incredible danger. When Alice is abducted, it is not her drunken father who takes action; it's Joe, with friends in tow. They're the real men here. 

Where many other recent teen films portray young people as moronic party-goers or naively emotional romantics, Super 8 portrays young people as the heroes they truly can be. Perhaps our expectations of young people need to shift; perhaps they are far more capable and courageous than we often give them credit. Expectations matter a great deal. I recall a recent conversation with a mother of a teen who used the term "baby" in reference to a freshman in high school. She meant it. They were just babies, incapable of doing anything on their own without being coddled or directed, helpless infants in life. Super 8 reveals differently--young people incredibly capable if we would only change our expectations and perceptions, drawing out the latent potential and revealing the beautiful heroes that lie within. Maybe feeling like a kid again isn't so bad after all.

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