Jack Henry Robbins directs a charmingly off-beat feature that combines Millennial absurdist humor with tenderhearted 80s nostalgia.
As we hurtle towards oblivion at an ever increasing clip (or so it seems), we seem to find more comfort than ever before in the past. We’ve deluded ourselves into believing it was better then, largely because it’s not now, even when evidence disputing that is right in front of us. There’s a certain sort of cynicism in film and television’s attempts to capitalize on nostalgia, a callow ticking off of boxes for maximum effect. Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes, however, a gentle, loving parody of VCR culture, does it right. Though its absurd sense of humor could easily veer into the aggressive weirdness of Tim and Eric, it seems far more interested in entertaining than alienating the audience.
Filmed entirely on VHS and Betamax, Robbins, along with co-writer Nunzio Randazzo, recreates 80s late night television with almost no false notes (a remarkable feat considering Robbins wasn’t even born until 1989). Clearly the screenwriting duo put in hundreds of hours of research to get the look and feel just right, and that effort is rewarded in a plotless but rarely dull collection of sketches sending up talk shows, softcore porn, true crime docudramas, commercials, and home shopping channels. Seemingly made especially for fans of Adult Swim and Found Footage Festival, VHYes also features a few surprisingly touching, melancholy and all too relevant moments about how what’s captured on screen doesn’t always tell the whole story.
12 year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty) gets a video camera for Christmas, and his first attempt at filming with it is accidentally done over a copy of his parents’ wedding video. When he’s not filming himself goofing off with his best friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw), or playing lighthearted pranks on his mother, Ralph records whatever comes up on late night TV, whether it would be interesting to a kid or not. Clearly Ralph is a budding auteur, finding fascination and inspiration in everything from a lizard crawling around on a branch to a hair restoration commercial that promises your hair will grow “like mushrooms after a rainstorm.”
Though its absurd sense of humor could easily veer into the aggressive weirdness of Tim and Eric, it seems far more interested in entertaining than alienating the audience.
Some of the highlights of VHYes’ send-ups include Kerri Kenney as the host of a Bob Ross-style painting show whose soft-spoken rambling eventually turns into something a little more ominous, the great Mark Proksch (What We Do in the Shadows’ energy vampire Colin Robinson) as an antiques appraiser who claims that a ceramic bowl “probably had 100 to 200 Victorian-era hearts from dead people in it,” and a climate change-themed porn film called Hot Winter, in which the protagonist is a leading scientist/champion bodybuilder named Dr. Manley (Nunzio Randazzo). In a clever touch, Hot Winter always cuts away right before any actual nudity or sex is shown, as if an embarrassed Ralph quickly changes the channel every time things start to heat up.
In the midst of all this good-natured, Amazon Women on the Moon-style silliness, there are a few signs that all is not well in Ralph’s real life. Snippets of his parents arguing are occasionally heard in the background of his videos, and he once captures his mother (Christian Drerup) sitting alone, unaware that she’s being filmed and looking deeply unhappy. Try as he might, Ralph can’t keep the difficulties and sorrows of everyday life entirely at bay.
VHYes also presents some interesting parallels between VHS culture and current social media. Though Boomers and older members of Gen X insist that the fascination with filming and photographing ourselves began with supposedly self-absorbed Millennials, it’s an inaccurate, if not outright dishonest, take. While video cameras were not as easily accessible as smartphones are today, most people who owned one made as many excuses to use it as possible, capturing the most seemingly meaningless moments on film. Much as we do on Facebook and Instagram, these home videos were often curated to present images of our lives that weren’t entirely accurate. Nothing really changes except the format.
Though VHYes meanders a bit for the last twenty minutes, particularly during a seemingly sincere musical performance, it takes a jarring turn into Blair Witch-style horror and then an unsettling dream sequence, before a funny closing stinger. It’s an experimental film that lands far more often than it doesn’t, and even when it doesn’t, it’s never enough to lose audience interest or good will. It’s earnest and even sweet at times, where even the porn parody is relatively clean. Though Robbins is ultimately parodying the pop culture of the generation before him, it’s obvious he has a great amount of genuine affection for it, and understands what those of us who really were of that generation know — that was a really weird time, man.
I’m burying the lede that Robbins is the son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (both of whom are billed as executive producers and appear in small roles). It seems both worth mentioning for purposes of trivia, and not, because Robbins has been doing this for nearly a decade, working his way up from short films to features. VHYes is too much of its own unique beast to be a product of Max Landis-style nepotism. Robbins has a niche audience he’s looking to appeal to, and succeeded, recreating the strange planet of the late 80s with cheek, intelligence, and heart.
VHYes is fast forwarding to theaters starting January 17th.