It’s been an unseasonably warm winter in my corner of the world (the only one that matters), temperatures climbing to the sixties with long days of humid rain feeling more like April than January. Every once in a while I’ll stop and ponder what a hot winter it’s been--and then it strikes me. A moment, a fragment of a scene plays again and again in my head: A closeup on porn scientist Dr. Manly’s face as he raises his eyebrows in mock seduction and intones, “It’s a Hot Winter.” I stop whatever I’m doing and try to suppress a laugh, try to stop myself from mimicking the eyebrow motions with my uncoordinated forehead, and I fail every time. It’s embedded in my subconscious, and I have no idea when or if it’ll break loose and tumble into obscurity. That’s the power of a great comedy--of a great film--to continue hitting you in waves after you’ve seen it.
Calling VHYes a film is something of a misnomer, since the movie is entirely shot on actual VHS tapes, but even at the very start of the year there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best comedies you’re going to see.
Director: Jack Henry Robbins
Released: January 17, 2020
Ralph (Mason McNulty) is an adolescent boy in the year 1987 (as if you couldn’t tell by his name), and he just scored himself a radical new VHS camera for Christmas. Quickly, he learns to zoom in on things (objectively the coolest thing you can do with a camera) and begins to obsess over his new gizmo in that singular way excited kids do. The plot of VHYes, though somewhat loose, follows his misadventures with friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw) spliced through with recordings of late-night TV and snippets of his parents’ wedding tape (which he’s, of course, recording over).
If you’re worried that having no great fondness for the 80’s or VHS culture will hamper your VHYes experience, you can knock that idea right out of your stupid fucking skull right now. I wasn’t alive in the 80’s (though I hear the decade was very nice and had the best scorpion jackets), and finally getting a DVD player so I never had to rewind again was one of the greatest moments of my childhood. I still love VHYes to pieces and think of it constantly. It’s funny, strange, full of heart, and with more than enough surprising depth to leave you gnawing on its ideas long after you’ve reached the end of the tape.
The smattering of Ralph’s recorded TV segments play as high-quality sketches featuring the likes of Thomas Lennon, Tim Robbins, Charlyne Yi, and even Susan Sarandon. These are the comic meat-and-potatoes stuffed with parodies of police procedurals, talk shows, pornography, and commercials. One of the early sketches is a home security ad in which a thief clad in cat-burglar black peeks through the bushes and announces “It’s time to steal!” before jumping into a little girl’s bedroom and creeping forward while whispering “I’m Mr. Nightmare,” and I will never stop repeating either of these lines for the rest of my life.
Unexpected themes cut through Ralph’s channel surfing, as well, with an advertisement in the upper corner of the TV guide channel decrying massive income disparity between the rich and poor and even TV-edited pornography espousing the dangers of global warming and racism between their erotic wood deliveries. The two porn flicks play longer than the other sketches but are tackled with such sincerity and good humor that I wish they were features in their own rights. Maybe if we cross our fingers and pray hard VHYes will have the Grindhouse effect and score some Hobo With a Shotgun-style spinoffs.
Even though they’re played for laughs, you can’t help but note the truth in VHYes messages. Kindly the Cowboy lambasts liberal agendas while preparing to skin a still-living animal in front of a small boy. A hamburger commercial demands to know if you’re a red-blooded American who likes thick red meat. An interview sees an author fearmongering that someday people’s addictions to recording themselves on VHS will lead to celebrities as world leaders and people filming their own accidental deaths on pocket VHS cameras, the proliferation of which ultimately changes the fabric of our reality. It’s all presented on-the-nose and intentionally absurd, but we live in absurd times, and so I’m forced to consider if we are still living in the long tail of the politics of the 80’s. That’s much more than I expected from a movie in which Kerri Kenney paints herself getting eaten out by Dennis Rodman.
Woven through all this are Ralph’s own difficulties with his parents’ deteriorating relationship at an age when kids start to wonder about what it means to be an adult and what kind of grown-ups they see in themselves. We witness so much through his eyes, his careful focus on his mother during quiet moments and near-constant avoidance of his dad. We also see him do the normal boy stuff--setting off fireworks, playing with toys, climbing around on abandoned cars. He attempts at one point to murder a watermelon by throwing it onto the sidewalk, but the rugged fruit refuses to die and rolls away from him ever onward downhill and around the bend. Ralph’s surprise is genuine and wonderful, and you can’t help but root for the watermelon-that-could alongside him, transported to your own youth. This is in no small way thanks to the performances of McNulty and Braslaw who are natural as adolescent boys just being boys.
With tonal shifts in just the right places, VHYes offers beauty, wonder, and uncertainty against its backdrop of TV antics and childish pranks. It’s not afraid to go full-on found-footage horror in the last act and then rocket itself into a surreal phantasmagoria that absolutely encapsulates the inner-mind of a boy saturated by media and unsure of who he’s supposed to be. It’s funny, weird, thoughtful, and will make you consider your current time and place more than you’d expect from such a retro absurdist package. It’s a labor of love through and through, and it will absolutely seep into the back of your brain and fire off whenever your mind wanders in the right directions, refusing to be taped over.