What story do you want to tell? A review of “Super 8”

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

As a writer, the question, “What story do you want to tell?” is an important one.  It lends you focus.  It behooves you to describe some people in detail and leave others in the background.  It compels you to “cut your darlings” not in some back woods, creepy no-teeth father sort of way, but rather clever turns of phrases, sharp witticisms, and generally great writing that the writer spends days waiting to casually saunter into their sphere of imagination and then, when you realize the words, the precious words, have no use to the story, you edit them off into oblivion.  Well, unless you are anal retentive and fear the onrush of the end of all creativity and you copy and paste them into a file just so that you can go back and gently caress their loving characters when you need to believe you can still write.

Cutting those words can be such a chore.  You may not even believe you need to cut them when your reading buddies gently urge you in that direction.  You can make them work.  You can make them fit.  You have a vision and it should stay intact, no matter what anyone says.

Then, you’d end up with Super 8.

There are parts of Super 8 that had me spellbound: the director and his main makeup man riding bikes through the town; teaching each other through magazines; a boy’s first crush; applying makeup to another person, such a very intimate moment, especially when that person trusts you enough to close their eyes (well, trust and the fact they don’t want makeup in their eyes); and friends getting together for a project and pulling together whatever might be at their disposal to figure out how to do it.  I could have watched those kids all day, and the biggest smiles of the whole viewing experience came during the credits as we watched the film of those kids, “The Case.”

Unfortunately, there had to be adults in the film.

Unfortunately, there was a big special effects budget.

Unfortunately, there had to be parent/children themes to work into the story.

The movie starts at the funeral for Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) mother, Jackson Lamb’s (Kyle Chandler) wife, who serves as deputy for the town. Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) shows up, he’s been drinking, and Jackson Lamb handcuffs him, runs him to his car and leaves Joe sitting by himself outside sitting on an old swing-set.

Then, the title card, “Four Months Later.”

I understand that Joe sitting out by himself is his way of coping with his mother’s death while he looks at the picture in the locket that his mother always wore around her neck.  I understand that Jackson arresting someone is his way of coping and escaping the air of his own home, filled that day with sadness and uncertainty, as all the friends of his hometown crammed upon him and made it tough to breathe, let alone mourn the death of his wife.

That stuff is not the story though.  We’re four months later.  Yes, the hurt is still in Joe.  It will be always.  The grief does not define his character, his curiosity does.  As does his willingness to help his friends, his love of building models and him being at the wonderfully awkward age where he knows he likes girls and has no clue what to do about it.  The scene were Joe and Charles (Riley Griffiths) go upstairs for Charles to get dinner and we hear brief words from the parents and they earnestly invite Joe to stay for dinner, gives us how the adults feel about his loss.

Later that night the plan to film by the train station unfolds.  We get the back-story we need as night falls; all the kids sneak out and wait on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to arrive with a car to take them to the train station.  Alice refuses to let Joe in the car she “borrows” from her dad because he’s the deputy’s kid. After all, she’s 13 and driving and that’s breaking the rules – the deputy’s family follows the rules.

So, what do we know from that paragraph to describe the opening of the movie?  We have an idea of what kind of father wouldn’t know her 13-year old took the car and has already taught her how to drive.

What is the relationship between Joe and Jackson?  He solemnly pledges to Alice that he’ll never tell, and we believe him, and we begin to know about that father/son relationship without a need for the opening scene.  A couple brief words like, “We don’t talk much anyway.  Especially not the last few months,” and soon the opening funeral scene fades in necessity.  All the scenes with Joe holding the locket when he gets nervous and we see how much his mother meant to him and now the opening funeral scene is completely superfluous.

Filming at the train station is a grand adventure.  Everything is low tech.  Everything is simple.  It’s the story of kids that want to make a zombie movie.  We’re getting to know the kids, their likes, their dislikes and their personalities as we watch them each prepare for the practice take.

Then comes the train crash.  I think it lasts longer than the car crash in The Blues Brothers.  Unfortunately, it’s about as funny too.  A train collides with a truck that swerved onto the tracks and somehow train cars fly everywhere in every direction.

Of course, the junior filmmakers are still alive.  It’d be depressing if they weren’t.  The car Alice borrowed from her dad does not have a scratch on it.  However, the train depot, the train and any gophers that may have been in the vicinity are ex-versions of their former selves.  Still, amid all of this chaos and destruction, the person driving the truck that caused the accident is also quite alive and gives them a message to not get involved.

Sadly, this is a pattern to the rest of the movie.

Whenever the kids are on screen and filming, guerrilla style, using the Air Force personnel that has appeared out of nowhere for their use, it is fun.  They’re having an adventure and are slowly figuring out the mystery surrounding this train.

Then, adults appear as plot devices, warning them to stay away from the train and/or their friends and bring along themes or story lines that I had no interest in following and I just waited until the next scene with the kids.  Or, some super-duper special effects scenes happen and I think, why does this matter?  Why do the filmmakers need to show this?  Why can’t the son of the deputy hear about it when he listens to his dad through his bedroom door, longing for contact that his mother used to create for his father and him, and the next day they can film there?

I won’t say much more about the story to avoid any spoilers, but, as you’d expect from a story about kids, the kids work together to help one of their own in trouble.  I’m also trying to block out what any character above the age of 20 had to do with anything and recapping would force me to remember.

I enjoyed parts of this movie, especially the scenes between Fanning and Courtney and the scenes between Griffiths and Courtney.  I felt as a guy, the filmmakers did a great job exploring issues that kids and adults would have as they create together.  However, instead of using the kids to explore the adult themes, the filmmakers thought their story had to get the adults involved as well.  As a viewer, I wish they hadn’t.

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