What if I told you the most enjoyable film I saw at Frightfest was made by an 18 year-old? What if I also told you that it was the 18 year-old’s third feature? Emily Hagins’ My Sucky Teen Romance is something I unashamedly gravitated to in every respect; it uses a mostly inexperienced yet diverse cast of teenagers to deliver dialogue written by teenagers, it has a keen sense of pop-cultural humour, it scales emotional highs and lows, but most winningly of all it relishes in teen-geekdom with unabashed sincerity. This is very much a film for smart kids, by smart kids, and it’s exactly the type of movie I would’ve wanted to make/see with my group of friends when I was 18.
Elaine Hurt plays Kate, a cute, shy, bespectacled 17 year-old who has never kissed a boy, yet secretly pines for the local cashier clerk Paul (Patrick Delgado). They are both unknowingly fans of comic books, something which becomes a deal-clencher when they serendipitously meet at the town’s horror/sci-fi convention SpaceCON. But their burgeoning romance is destined to be doomed from the start, as it turns out Paul has been turned into a vampire seemingly overnight by a shady drifter named Vince (Devin Bonnée), whose leather jacket and greaser hair-do scream ‘50s, but whose alternate resemblance to Twilight’s Edward Cullen also allows the film several opportunities to take shots at that popularly unpopular (with geeks, anyway) franchise.
When Paul accidentally bites Kate while going in for a kiss, Kate enlists the help of her close-knit group of friends; Allison (Lauren Lee), Jason (Santiago Dietche) and Mark (Tony Vespe), to stop her from transforming into a blood-sucking, reflectionless vampire — a task made all the more pressing given that Kate is scheduled to move away for college the next day and the vampire drifter Vince is still on the loose. The supporting cast are themselves a Joss Whedon-esque collection of high-schoolers, each with their own quirks; Allison provides emotional support, Jason provides the smarts, Mark the comic-relief — and the film has elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scooby Doo encoded in it’s DNA.
But for all it’s referential familiarity there is a strong script steering it all, with clear goals, clever jokes and surprising emotional turns at it’s core. When Kate’s adorable little brother makes a re-appearance in the third act just when all hope seems lost, it’s disarmingly affecting. Hagins starts off at a swift pace, immediately with the kids preparing for SpaceCON and tattering back-and-forth over cellphones with comic precision. Their snappy banter is somewhat diminished once they’re all in the same room together, and their inexperience in acting provides a few hurdles when it comes to some line-readings — a problem that is compounded by technical quirks, like the over-insistence on using studio overdubbing as opposed to set-sound. But an unintentional side-effect of the film’s indie spirit is that you end up willing them on, like proud parents at a recital. You care not only for the characters but for the actors themselves, as you sense the two roles aren’t far off. Tony as Mark especially has a natural comedic swagger about him that you can imagine continued off-camera.
Come the rousing and dramatically satisfying climax, where emotions that had been suppressed can no longer keep hidden and self-sacrifices are made in abundance, you will feel as if this is a filmmaker who has latched onto a storytelling skill that is rare of someone her age-group. The fact that she gets to explore funny and heartfelt tropes so confidently onscreen whilst delivering her own uniquely geeky sensibility says a lot about who she is and where she can go as a director. All the technical mumbo-jumbo will follow. Speaking to her after the screening and realising how committed she is to honing her craft and conveying her vision (her next feature, a sci-fi, is already gestating), it’s clear that it is only a matter of time before she scales further heights.
Movie Rating: 3.5/5