As the pandemic continues to rage around us virtually unchecked, threatening to bring the age of movie theaters to an ignoble end, the Alamo Drafthouse has continued to work hard to keep itself afloat during this year and with an eye on the next. Alongside the mind-boggling and largely unnecessary loss of life, Austin has seen the permanent shuttering of two of its pop culture stalwarts, Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, both of which managed to survive both the large scale destruction of independent video stores by corporate giant Blockbuster and its competitors as well as the endangerment of the home video rental marketplace as a whole when Blockbuster was itself ousted by the rise of DVD-by-mail retailer turned streaming giant Netflix. Drafthouse is still hanging in there, and one of its COVID-necessitated diversifications was the introduction of Drafthouse at home, which saw the delivery to one’s home of a mixed six pack of beer, six single serving liquors, and one Drafthouse Films DVD. Two months into the pandemic, my old roommate and one of his current housemates were kind enough to send two such packages on to me as a gift for my birthday. It’s a kind and thoughtful gift, and I wish I could say those same adjectives held true for the first of the films I watched.
The FP is trying very desperately to be something greater than the sum of its parts, but is held back and ultimately defeated by some extremely questionable choices with regards to world-building and humor.
Our setting is the real world California suburb of Frazier Park, but in an alternate reality. Most plot descriptions you’d find tucked away in various corners of the internet refer to it as an apocalyptic future, but what we’re presented with isn’t really a potential future of our present reality (or of the potential future reality of the film’s release year of 2011); it’s situated firmly in a not too distant future as imagined by the sci-fi creators of the 1980s (you know, Turbo Kid rules). For example, despite being made within the past decade, all communication is done via payphones and pagers, and the most advanced technology that appears on screen is one of those programmable raver kid LED scrolling text belt-buckles, as worn by our protagonist JTRO (Jason Trost) and his older brother, BTRO (Brandon Barrera). The film’s commitment to that 1980s aesthetic, even when using what is clearly digital video, is admirable and reflects the sincerity of the film overall. It’s just too bad that the film’s worst choices render it nearly impossible to defend.
We first meet JTRO, of the “248” gang, on the eve of his planned battle with the lieutenant of the leader of the rival “245” gang in the FP, or Frazier Park. After getting a pep talk from BTRO, he faces off against his opponent in combat—at Dance Dance Revolution, er, I mean “Beat Beat Revelation.” JTRO wins his match handily, but when BTRO steps up for his fight against rival gang leader L Dubba E (Lee Valmassy), his legs give out and he dies in his younger brother’s arms, ceding control of the FP to 245. We then flash forward to a year later, when BBR emcee KCDC (Art Hsu) tracks down JTRO in the forest, where he’s been working as a lumberjack. Citing that the FP has become a hellish place since the 245took power, made even worse by L Dubba E inheriting his family’s liquor store and thus having control over the sole source of alcohol for the entire community, KCDC convinces JTRO to come home and restore the FP.
Upon his return, JTRO learns that an old flame of his, Stacy (Caitlyn Folley), has taken up with L Dubba E in order to maintain a steady supply of booze for her abusive father, lest he turn to harder drugs as many others have in the intervening year. He also learns that getting the community back on its feet won’t be simple, as JTRO must first gain enough street cred for L Dubba E to consider his challenge (as Dubba E says in his one good line, this is because of “Politics and shit”). To help out, KCDC brings JTRO to BLT (Nick Principe), who serves the role of the “wizened master” in this hero’s journey. Can JTRO train hard enough to beat L Dubba E and save the FP, win Stacy’s heart, and avenge his brother’s death?
On the face of it, the idea of a gangland showdown revolving around battles performed using an interface that is essentially-identical-to-but-legally-distinct-from Dance Dance Revolution is funny, and has a lot of potential charm. You’d think that if there was going to be a failure in the film it would come from these sequences, as there’s only so much investment you can expect from an audience watching someone else play BBR, but these clashes are generally some of the more fun parts of the movie, with dynamic and innovative camera choices, synchronized movement from the opponents, and great shots of extras hamming it up as colorful eighties-style punks. The training montages that appear throughout the second act are also effective in capturing the essence of the films of this type that came before, and there’s a shot where JTRO is ambling down a mountain road en route back to Frazier Park and comes to an unobstructed view of the valley below that is legitimately beautiful. The performances are also much better than you’d expect from a low ($45,000) budget film starring mostly people from the neighborhood. Trost is fairly wooden, but I feel comfortable giving the benefit of the doubt here and saying that’s deliberately evocative of the antagonists of the films from which this plot is lovingly cribbed. Special mention should also be made of Folley, who, although amateurish in some of her delivery, displays genuine vulnerability and internal conflict at other points, and her mimicry of well-meaning-but-dimwitted tropes is well-studied.
Where this film fails is in its South Park-esque edgelordery. Trost is not only the lead here, he also has a Story By credit, and he gets co-credits with his brother Brandon Trost for both Screenplay By and Director, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he’s openly stated that the idea for the film came to him when he was 16, and … it shows. If you were to sit down and read this script without any context, you’d expect this to have an all-Black cast based on how frequently the n-word appears, or at least you’d pray that it wouldn’t be an almost all-white cast. Spoiler alert: you’d be wrong. There are no Black people in this film at all*. A late-in-the-game “explanation” that the “n***a” variant used almost exclusively but pervasively is an acronym (that I won’t bother transcribing here) does nothing to quell this problem. Most of the uses come from KCDC, a (non-Black) POC character doing so as part of his hype man schtick, but again, there’s no real excuse for this: the people who made this were young white kids from Frazier Park and thought that the co-option of BVE/AAVE and gangsta archetypes was hilarious (in case it needs to be said: it is not). And did I mention that the L Dubba E had a giant golden grill that encompasses the entire upper row of his teeth? Or that his gang uses Confederate imagery? Or what about the fact that when we finally meet Stacy’s father, whom we’ve only heard screaming from offscreen to this point, he emerges from their trailer wearing femme undergarments, just because it’s “hilarious” to make a couple of transphobic jabs at the expense of a character we’re supposed to hate? If this were floated as a Drafthouse film in 2020 instead of 2011, it probably wouldn’t get past the first round of consideration. At least I hope it wouldn’t.
The FP almost has a lot going for it. An original concept, a specific vision, an encyclopedic knowledge of the material being reimagined and rebuilt: all great things to have when building what this movie wanted to be. But an uncritical adoption of Black culture (which isn’t to say that a critical use of AAVE by white kids as inspected by these particular filmmakers would have been better–it definitely would not have) and tone-deaf jokes that misgender and actively engage in othering turn what could have been a worthy part of the pantheon of eighties reimagination that contains treasures like Turbo Kid and Son of Rambow into another forgotten amateur indie. If I had a storeroom full of DVDs of this, I’d be foisting them off on people if I could, too.
*Shockingly, this reflects a 0.0% Black/African American population for the real-life Frazier Park, which tells us that virtually every aspect of Black culture present in the real Frazier Park and in the film is completely appropriated, which kind of says everything, doesn’t it?
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond