Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

An ageless, fantabulous family film ___ 8/10

Super 8Cary: Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us.

Joe Lamb: She [his mother who died] used to look at me… this way, like really look… and I just knew I was there… that I existed.

Great casting, incredible imagination, quality dialog, believable story,[1] attention-holding action, heroes and villains realistic and timely, and a twist of 1980s nostalgia. Super 8 presses all the right buttons as an ageless, fantabulous family film. But it’s the casting of the two young teenage characters, in particular, Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb and Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard that ices the cake. Courtney and Fanning elevate the project from what easily could have been just another decent kids’ TV movie into the realm of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Written by J.J. Abrams
Directed by J.J. Abrams

Joel Courtney … Joe Lamb
Riley Griffiths … Charles
Ryan Lee … Cary
Gabriel Basso … Martin
Zach Mills … Preston
Kyle Chandler … Jackson Lamb
Jessica Tuck … Mrs. Kaznyk
Ron Eldard … Louis Dainard
Jade Griffiths … Benji Kaznyk
Elle Fanning … Alice Dainard

IMDb has lately been placing film clips on its Webpages, and this film clip shows exactly what I’m talking about, at least for the Elle Fanning performance. It’s a pivotal scene, where the young band of 8mm-filmmakers have miraculously influenced the ‘It’ girl in town, Alice Dainard, to join their ambitious troupe for a movie about detectives, romance, and other grownup things. Charles (Riley Griffiths), the producer-director, has organized a special filming, at night, at a spartan train station outside of their rural Ohio town. Joe is sort of a jack of all trades and handles the makeup; both he and Charles have a crush on Alice.

I point out this clip because I have never seen a better illustration of the difference between poor acting, mediocre acting, and the best acting. In the scene the girlfriend/wife (played by Fanning) is having a heartfelt conversation with the male lead, the detective in this movie within a movie. The detective character says he must take his investigation to a faraway place—Michigan. It’s a trip she knows is fraught with danger, and he may not return. Fanning (as Alice) first reads her lines in a cursory manner. The director and troupe show disappointment, but decide to go ahead and roll the scene. What Fanning brings next is pure screen magic… for the movie AND for the movie within the movie.[2]

Until this point, I had been paying loose attention, watching the plot start with the untimely death of Joe’s mother and Jackson Lamb’s (Kyle Chandler) wife, which shows how Joe, in particular, has been deeply affected. Joe now spends more and more time with his 8mm film crew and his best buddy Charles, the energetic and supercreative son in a big, friendly family living just down the road from the Lambs. [In the character of Charles one can easily imagine Super 8‘s producer Steven Spielberg or director J.J. Abrams. Many of us had friends who liked to chronicle events, or even try their hand at teenage movie making back in the day before digital and tape video recorders.[3]

So after this special scene, I’m hooked. Immediately following the scene the plot moves into high gear. With a train wreck. Okay that’s a bit of a spoiler, and it’s a spectacular wreck, too. But let’s just say, there’s a mystery associated with the train, and the mystery affects the town. It’s also a mystery that the US Air Force is trying to keep in check, not out of any ethical concern, but as sort of a CYA operation. So naturally the town goes through all kinds of gyrations, with Jackson Lamb being in the hot seat trying to keep a lid on all the disruptions. Not to mention some of the past issues from the small town that have come calling.

What further makes the film interesting has to do with the youngsters still trying get their film done, which thereby plugs into the larger plot. So on the scale of the local community, we see among the older characters some necessary resolutions… or not. But it’s a young person’s story, and the key plot ideas focus on Joe and Alice, on their blooming first love. After the train wreck and release of the mystery, Joe Lamb comes out of his shell and makes some adult decisions. The young actor really becomes the focal point, and does a fine job. I believe he’ll become a stud actor in a few years.

If you go to IMDb and other review sites, you’ll get some mixed reviews. Many critics, professional and otherwise, have nice things to say about the first hour of the movie but condemn the movie unmercifully for its final half hour. And I get the criticism, but really feel it largely misses the mark. When you’re doing a movie that has a strong science fiction element, especially a family movie in which teenagers have a leading role, you have to be prepared to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. At the same time, the action cannot be so ridiculous to be inconceivable or silly. Personally, I find the sci-fi part of the final half hour just fine, with a couple of minor caveats.

One can also look at the human resolution(s) outside of the sci-fi part. There I can agree with some objections, but only one really. Not enough to lay the whole film low. Super 8 is an entertaining, well-thought-out movie from start to finish, with plenty of worthwhile material for the whole family. It retains authentic adult dialog for that time and place 25 years ago, so doesn’t pull any punches simply to appeal to children. But, sure, kids under 10 should probably not be seeing it.

Yes, the special effects are extraordinary. But it’s the childlike enthusiasm and the performances of Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, that infect the movie and make us all feel like kids again.

[1] It’s sci-fi, so you have to concede poetic license provided nothing defies plausibility by being imaginatively impossible in all possible objective realities.

[2] Elle Fanning was nominated for a few awards, and won the Hollywood Film Festival Spotlight award. Living proof that (the best) acting requires genuine ability and commitment, and makes a huge difference in the value of a film. I was actually getting chills from this scene, it was so unexpected.

[3] Eight-millimeter film cameras were manageable and relatively inexpensive compared to sixteen-millimeter film apparatus.

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