Fantastic Fest Review: VHYes – A Nostalgic Romp Through Being a Child of the 80s with Director Jack Henry Robbins
I remember in the late 80s when my family finally figured out how to use our VHS tape player to record television. Before that day, television was something ephemeral – it flickered before our eyes and then it was gone. It added a sense of urgency and preciousness to what we were consuming. We would darken our fingers with the news print of the TV Guide and study the grid of programming, circling in dark pencil what we wanted to watch, memorizing the day, time and channel. When we would watch we would sit stalk-still, hands idle, eyes wide and thirsty. Who knows when that particular episode of 321 Contact would roll around again. When we could record TV, it felt like we were getting away with something. We would hover our hand over the record button, vibrating in anticipation for the instant our program would start. The Muppet Takes Manhattan, complete with commercial breaks, would be ours. That stolen streak of time could be lovingly labeled and added to our collection.
When Ralphie (Mason McNulty) gets a camcorder for Christmas he is eager to start a collection of his own. He doesn’t have aspirations of becoming a filmmaker, exactly, he knows, in his bones, that he isn’t going to be 12-years old forever and he just wants to keep a record of those fleeting moments – playing pranks on his mom, chilling with his best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw), and those late night movies, that his parents would ground him for watching, let alone, recording to watch again later.
A Christmas present isn’t a Christmas present if you can’t play with it right away. It’s why Santa includes hastily wrapped AA and D batteries in the toes of your stocking - It’s really his parents’ fault if you think about it - It won’t be Christmas 1987 forever and Ralphie wants a piece of it. He doesn’t have a blank tape, so he just grabs the nearest one. He doesn’t know it’s his parents’ wedding tape.
Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes has its greedy fingers in a lot of genre pies. It’s part found-footage flick, part coming of age, part sketch, part supernatural thriller, and largely pastiche. The entire movie is shot on VHS and Betamax, and the conceit is that it is Ralph’s parents’ wedding tape, irrevocably mutilated by Ralphie’s messing around with his Christmas present. The moments of Ralphie playing with toys or making his mom laugh are interstitial between lovingly nostalgic parodies of late 80s news, public access television, commercials, true crime, and late night cheesecake programming. Particularly evocative to me was the public access program Painting with Joan, in which a soft spoken Joan (Kerri Kenney) guides her audience through painting happy landscapes, extraterrestrial theories, and life advice – memories of Bob Ross, Commander Mark, and the various crafting shows where they walked us through barren television studios to show us how to hot glue ourselves to a better existence. All of the parody material is hiply deadpan and goofy, which is a stark contrast to the realness of the footage Ralph captured of his life, and the surviving moments of his parents’ very seventies wedding.
Presumably because of Jack Henry Robbin’s inherited Hollywood connections, VHYes is pleasantly more star studded than the average Kickstarted, low-budget, experimental film. As a comedy nerd, I loved glimpsing two-thirds of Viva Variety, Kerri Kenney and Thomas Lennon, as well as comedian, indie darling Charlene Yi. Mom and dad also pop in, and while Tim Robbins is obscured under a wig and age make-up, it is a little jarring when Susan Sarandon pops up in a commercial for achy joint cream.
Every time the wedding footage bubbles up, in between Ralphie’s frantic dabblings, it’s like a twist of the knife – you get the strong sense he is whiling away something precious. My only nitpick of the film is that family storyline, that relates to the dwindling wedding footage, and segments of the twisty denouement are not parsed through the film more evenly. The ending feels more like a hasty wrap up than a culmination of collaged, clippy footage. Despite the uneven, whacky tone, I can’t imagine any child of the 80s not being charmed by VHYes. The sketchy parodies of 80s programming are legitimately funny, and the performances that Robbins gets of the child actors, McNulty and Braslaw, are so natural that I was transported right back into my Oshkosh B’gosh days of being raised by public television. VHYes is nostalgic, silly, and a super fun watch.