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“VHYes”: A Blissfully Chaotic Betacam Cocktail

“VHYes,” the new comedy from director Jack Henry Robbins, co-written by Robbins and Nunzio Randazzo, is a smorgasbord of retro fun akin to films like “UHF” or “American Movie” — a time machine to the emergence of VHS and the thrill of capturing life on a handheld camera bigger than one’s head. The movie’s world premiere took place last year at Fantastic Fest, but on January 17, it hit theaters nationwide. If there’s a new release you should catch, let it be this one.

In 1987, 12-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty) receives his very own Betacam camera for Christmas. As any kid does, he starts to record everything — late-night TV, fireworks tests, lizards — all over his parents’ wedding tape. What results on screen is a raucous mixtape of home videos and pop culture ephemera that sparks Ralph’s imagination and budding love for storytelling.

My favorite movie is 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” so when this movie also introduces a kid named Ralph who’s over-enthusiastic about his Christmas present, my ears perk up. I guess in this case, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” has a different connotation.

I make the comparison because I think “A Christmas Story” and “VHYes” share a kinship. These films are impressionistic, building a loose series of vignettes to paint nostalgic portraits of American boyhood in their respective eras (the former set in the ‘50s, the latter in the ‘80s). Their heroes are no Disney Channel constructions, but rather honest reflections of children. Ralphie and Ralph are as gentle as they are mischievous, like so many of us.

However, where Ralphie grows up sitting next to the radio, Ralph has TV. His entire world is filtered through static, thoughts racing with each click of the remote. At one moment, Ralph’s parents bask in the glow of a new marriage. In a flash, a punk band rages through their set in what looks like a timid host’s parents’ basement. The scene cuts to environmentally conscious softcore porn. Reread that if you have to. I tell no lies.

The movie channel-surfs through a found-footage anthology of blink-and-you-miss-it comedy sketches. Ralph’s perspective curates a steady diet of crude and surreal parodies of Bob Ross, HSN and Richard Simmons’ workout tapes. The whole thing feels like a preteen’s candy bender, hilarious for goobers and geniuses alike.

Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

“VHYes” is littered with a diverse, hysterical cast. McNulty plays Ralph with equal parts silliness and tenderness, reminding me of Ellar Coltrane’s early years in “Boyhood.” Kerry Kenney-Silver plays Joan to such a wonderfully discomforting degree, it’s a toss-up for whether I’d rather share the room with her or the Hal-9000. Cameron Simmons cracked me up as the bumbling porn star, whether he’s delivering wood (I swear to God, that’s not a metaphor) or stumbling across three sexy Swedish aliens from space. Even Robbins’s parents, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, make appearances (Sarandon, in particular, has such a bizarre entrance and exit, it made me giggle).

However, the film’s MVP is Christian Drerup, who plays Ralph’s mom. She radiates such warmth, gives the movie so much of its heart. Her monologue at the end of the movie brings the whole thing home for me; it tied together so much of the film’s musings about experience and memory in such a naked, honest way.

At times, I pull myself out of the movie to remember the immense work going into each sketch, parody and fake commercial. From over-the-top color blasts and handheld zooms to grainy three-camera setups with hazy special effects, the movie goes for broke and successfully recreates a myriad of ‘80s production designs. Avner Shiloah’s editing captures Ralph’s scatterbrained attention span perfectly, even down to the random frames that linger a half-second too long between cuts.

I’ve read comparisons of this film to a show like “Tim and Eric,” and while I agree the two share a surreal sense of humor, Robbins controls the chaos. The transitions between segments can be non-sequiturs, but the form, the craft is always sound. I like “Tim and Eric,” but after a while, sketches can blur into each other and melt into visual noise. Robbins approaches “VHYes” like a hip-hop producer does samples: fusing and transforming different, sometimes clashing, elements to create a mosaic. This is a movie that works best when viewed in macro, not micro.

VHYes
Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

As “VHYes” progresses, it asks questions about reality, experience and our perception. By recording our experiences, do we irreparably alter the memories, and ourselves in the process? Will we grow to value life on a screen more than life on the ground? Is a growing obsession with the camera a collective defense mechanism from the problems we feel powerless to tackle? Or are we simply hopeless social misfits?

Ralph has growing pains; he’s developing new attitudes and questions about his parents and his creative expression. For as therapeutic as exploring new artistic mediums and passions can be, that journey can never fully satisfy, because these pleasures are ultimately finite and superficial. The camera, the screen can give us a heightened or exaggerated version of life, but it can never fully embrace it. 

The movie’s best moments are when Ralph has stepped away from the TV, alone with his thoughts. It’s the balance of experience and reflection that keeps us healthy. It’s the acceptance that we won’t (and shouldn’t) be able to capture nor bottle our most important seconds that makes living so precious. It’s the knowledge that time is impossible to cling to that enriches our attempts to record it. That paradox makes our art human, and it’s through those imperfections, homegrown in grainy film, that “VHYes” celebrates our blissful, chaotic, reckless, childish spirit.

The film’s currently playing nationwide — a full list of theaters can be found at https://vhyes.oscilloscope.net/#screenings

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Featured photo credit: Oscilloscope

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