Just over nine years ago, Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles spoke to me for a story about the wellspring of talent in Austin, Texas and exemplified it with the story of a 10-year-old girl he met through his long-running Saturday Morning Film Club. Desperate to start making films of her own, she wasn’t old enough to get involved in student filmmaker programs, so she took work where she could, painting zombies on the set of low-budget horror films before plotting out a feature of her own at 12. (Naturally, the story of that film “Pathogen” was made into a documentary of its own “Zombie Girl: The Movie.”) Which is why for the longest time, I’ve associated Emily Hagins, now 19 and the veteran of three productions, with ambition as much as anything, though with her third film “My Sucky Teen Romance,” she now represents something even more inspiring: a practitioner of craft.
For the wary observer of American independent cinema, understandable in an era when anybody who picks up a camera considers themselves a filmmaker, “My Sucky Teen Romance” arrives as a blast of energy, and not solely because of its bold, boisterous opening credits sequence born out of 8-bit video game graphics and a pulsing soundtrack that could’ve been a prototype for the sequence that graced Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void.” You’d think such a tone would be hard to sustain over the 82-minute running time of Hagins’ horror comedy, but that isn’t the case.
In telling the story of a comic book convention named Space-Con that’s infiltrated by vampires – because really, who would notice them amongst all those cos-players? — the film isn’t given a boost through the frantic editing or montage overuse that pass for keeping things lively onscreen these days, but rather in how well-paced and well-made it actually is. Clever uses of focus pulling and visual geography are no doubt the product of years of Hagins honing her skills and yet the fact that Hagins was actually the same age as the characters she’s depicting gives the film a youthful innocence that can’t be trained.
As a result, the romance in “My Sucky Teen Romance” isn’t necessarily between its characters, particularly since its central heroine Kate (Elaine Hurt) announces before entering the Con that she wants a “no strings attached, over the weekend” affair and it’s likely it will be with Paul (Patrick Delgado), a grocery store clerk who she’s spotted reading “Mel Payne” on the job from time to time. Trouble is, by the time Paul reaches the Con, he’s been robbed both of the cash from the register and his humanity to boot by a teen bloodsucker from the ‘50s (Devin Bonnee). Kate doesn’t know this before Paul goes in for what appears to be a kiss after they walk into the convention hall getting to know each other and walk out holding hands, but once she does, the film plays around with vampire tropes from films and other pop culture as Kate’s friends rally around her to figure out whether she has joined the ranks of Nosferatu and Dracula and she and Paul turn their attention from figuring out their relationship to how to become human once more.
Therein lies the true object of Hagins’ and the film’s affections, which is in its devotion to pop culture. Of course, references to “Twilight” and “Nancy Drew” are par for the course, but there’s a deeper connection to fandom on display, serving as the inspiration for Hagins’ own kind of fan fiction in exploring the possibilities of a fictional realm colliding with our own, but also in the strong sense of community that forms around a shared love over a movie or book. Such overwhelming passion is a double-edged sword for the film – Kate’s group of friends has a camraderie and a natural sense of purpose that so often feels manufactured but feels effortless here, but then as the plot progresses and every line drips with the life-or-death importance only a teen could muster in such an ultimately silly scenario, the young cast spits out dialogue as if they’ve had an allergic reaction to the exposition benchmarks they’ve seen in other films before. It’s a small price to pay, especially when the cost of the film appears to be so low, and yet noticeable when Hagins does such a credible job of building the world around them – literally, the Space-Con, filled with characters in and out of costume, looks every bit the regional gathering of geeks it would be in real life and the special effects work, used sparingly, is quite effective.
However, to dwell on technical terms would be a disservice to the fun ride “My Sucky Teen Romance” is, though saying that alone might be a disservice to Hagins, who deserves to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. As great a story as she’s developed behind the camera, it seems she’s got even better ones to tell in front of it in the years ahead and “My Sucky Teen Romance,” while clearly part of a learning curve, is contrary to its title and refreshingly to the teen romance genre.