A group of teens, circa 1984, gather outside a nightclub, waiting to get into a party to which they were not exactly invited and for which they would never have been given an invitation in the first place. This waiting area is almost exclusively the setting of 18 to Party, a unique coming-of-age ensemble in the way it condenses the experience of getting older and facing the reality of the world into one memorable night. This is a considerable gamble on the part of writer-director Jeff Roda (his feature debut as a director and a breakthrough on the big screen as writer), who must then populate the proceedings with characters who are both sympathetic and memorable. For the most part, he succeeds at doing this surprisingly well.

The period-set backdrop is only brought to life through the careful detail to costume design and hairstyling (which are less garishly “Eighties” than they could have been) and through the reference-littered dialogue that engages in the pop-culture mainstays of the day. Otherwise, Roda simply and perceptively captures a mindset here, as the anxiety surrounding the possible sightings of UFOs sets upon this group of teenagers who are already anxious about everything else in their lives. Some of the characters are less distinctive than others. All we really learn about Dean (Nolan Lyons) and Peter (Sam McCarthy), for instance, is that they differ in opinion about the UFO rumor.

Which side they fall on, in fact, barely matters, because as quickly as the filmmaker brings it up, he just as swiftly has the topic of conversation change to something else. In addition to the reference-heaviness in the dialogue, there is a slightly elevated quality to the way these characters talk that is both verbally adroit and, thanks to these young actors, naturalistic. Above Dean and Peter in relative importance within the central sextet are Missy (Taylor Richardson), who is cultured and has recently started hanging out with a popular girl two grades above her, and Kira (Ivy Miller), the foul-mouthed and self-deprecating one who is dating the reserved James (Erich Schuett) and has a lot of misguided anger.

There are also Brad (Oliver Gifford), a loner who’s a little older, a little wiser and a lot quicker to anger than the rest of the group, and finally Shel (Tanner Flood), who eventually takes on the most prominent role in the film. In the background of the story, tragedies have taken place. An armed gunman opened fire on a popular restaurant (killing more than twenty people, including a four-year-old kid), the then-current President made a lot of reckless economic decisions that might spell difficulties for their families in the near future, and most importantly, there was the apparent suicide pact of a teenage boy and his girlfriend, an event that had little warning and left a gaping hole in the community.

Brad knew the boy well and the girlfriend a little less well, and indeed, the departed was brother to Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson), a free spirit who shows up twice here – once before we really understand his connection to the victims and again in time for a climax that really establishes how well Lanky has buried his grief and pain. Shel enjoys a slight romance with Amy (Alivia Clark), a pretty girl who really likes him back. The conflict here is nearly as slight, with certain characters blowing up at other ones for perceived slights and injustices, until it ratchets up just a bit in that climax. Thankfully, Roda doesn’t really put a whole lot of stock into these scenes.

The main focus is on the personalities, the experiences of growth and the beginnings of adolescence for the young people at the center of the story. Through a coup of casting, Roda has found young, mostly unknown actors who approach these complex, flawed individuals with the nuance of seasoned professionals. Behind the camera, Roda keeps things relatively quiet, although in conference with editor Kate Williams, the quixotic and easy pacing of this swift, brief film (only 80 minutes, including end credits) still somehow belies a movie that manages to do a whole lot with not much time devoted to any of it. 18 to Party is easygoing entertainment, with a whole helping of heart and empathy.

Summary
Easygoing entertainment, with a whole helping of heart and empathy.
80 %
Eighties Blues
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