Film Review: The Toy Soldiers

Powerful, haunting, oddly sweet yet utterly unsentimental film about 1980s teens, with five interlocking stories, showcases a prodigious talent in emerging filmmaker Erik Peter Carlson.

By all rights, The Toy Soldiers shouldn't work: A two-and-a-half-hour indie ensemble drama with a cast of unknowns, set 30 years ago, telling five interconnected stories all shot in what the filmmaker says was a "micro-budget" 28 days of production. And for all that, I am not going out on a limb to call The Toy Soldiers one of the most unsentimentally well-observed and sympathetically humane movies ever made about teens—and that writer-director-producer Erik Peter Carlson is a gifted and daring talent who bears watching.

Doing an M.C. Escher end-run around the movie archetype of a final-night rite-of-passage, Carlson's story, set in an unspecified 1980s Southern California town, interweaves a concurrent quintet of tales informed by flashbacks and flash-forwards. A fortyish woman exits a liquor store; a teen entering says, "Hello, Mrs. Harris" before being yelled at by the owner. In a later story, we see Mrs. Harris' own confrontation at the counter before her leaving. Some moments in some scenes overlap verbatim, but where we left that table of teens in one tale, we stay with them in another. As in classical music, complex resonance abounds: Angry words out of context here gain meaning and perspective there. That it all seems organic and necessary rather than a look-at-me technical trick shows you just how strong the characters and the big-picture story are.

At an amusement-park pier on a balmy night, teens in satin gym shorts and striped, knee-high sweat socks have gathered for the last night of The Toy Soldiers, the incongruously named roller disco that’s closing down tomorrow. Eighteen-year-old Jack Harris (Samuel Nolan) is reluctant to admit to himself he's "queer," as a gay youth was called back before the word got reclaimed and reappropriated. His year-old brother Elliot (Chandler Rylko) has the quietly confident good looks of your basic young rock god, yet he's as painfully shy and vulnerable as an outcast kid, and has spent months observing the beautiful, sharp-tongued Angel (Najarra Townsend) before working up the nerve to speak to her.

Steve (young Michael Imperioli lookalike Nick Frangione) is a bit slow and a bit off, wearing a powder-blue tuxedo jacket to the roller rink in some naïve notion of being cool. He, too, has finally summoned his own courage to speak with Layla (Jeanette May Steiner, billed here as Jeanette May), who rents skates and sells herself. Another character—who, granted, has Tourette's—calls Layla a white-trash slut, trying to hurt her, but he can't: She's already accepted that as who she is. And yet for reasons she couldn't explain herself, she always fires off photos from her ever-present Polaroid, like a Warhol without a portfolio. If the big revelation of The Breakfast Club was that the high-school roles of jock, nerd, Goth girl, et al. mask complicated people, The Toy Soldiers jacks up the quotient to show complicated, tragic, hurting yet hopeful people. When cool, collected Angel gives her backstory…Wow! Did not see that comin'. Add the story of the Harris boys' mother (Constance Brenneman)—an attractive high-school music teacher turned ugly alcoholic and student-banger after her divorce, clinging to the children that her still-loving ex (Kevin Pinassi) needs to take away from her for their own sake—and this is the breakfast, lunch, dinner and suicide club.

Carlson is cognizant of the tropes he trashes, dedicating the film to a "Mr. Hughes," presumably 1980s teen-movie auteur John Hughes. He's not doing it sarcastically, out of malice, but out of love for something that hurt. "You know those movies, those stupid teenage movies, that show kids who are supposed to be us having a great time?" Angel asks Elliot sadly. "Like this is supposed to be the raddest time of our lives? They make me sick. They always make me feel like I'm missing out on something."

On his second fiction feature, Carlson shows himself a skillful and confident director with palpable control over his images and camera. Unafraid to take audacious storytelling risks, he has sequences of Terrence Malick lyricism, of that same eye for the almost-subliminal moment of nature or of expression, of the same ear for meaningful silence. And despite a tight production schedule, he either had the time to work deeply with his actors or the talent to cast brilliantly, since at least a half-dozen of his stars give performances of such subtlety and bared emotion you want to give them each an award and a hug. On rare occasion his dialogue can be blunt and didactic, and a couple of anachronisms creep in—"hook up" wasn't used that way then—but this remains a sad, compassionate, naturalistically powerful portrait of hurt and hurting lower-income lives, and of the possibility of love as a lifejacket.

Carlson's previous feature, Transatlantic Coffee, got virtually no theatrical release, if any. On the strength of The Toy Soldiers, I'm seeking it out—and anything else this gifted emerging talent directs.

Click here for cast and crew information.