A sort of spiritual sequel to the touchstone adolescent cinema of the 1980s, The Lather Effect is a wistfully engaging ensemble flick about the emotional grappling of the generation that grew up on MTV and the Rubik’s Cube — like the characters of a John Hughes comedy getting back together for one last meeting of the breakfast club and finding out things aren’t what they use to be. The cinematic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” it’s a movie about fond reminiscences as well as the receding tide of the big-haired new wave — a bunch of friends and part-time rivals coming to grips with social and familial responsibilities and the fact that the best times of their lives might still be in front of them, if only they could stop looking over their shoulders. So why isn’t Eric Stoltz in this movie? Oh wait… he is? Awesome!
Written and directed by Sarah Kelly (above right), the movie is centered around the hung-over morning after a wild, back-in-time theme party (“Come as you were!”) thrown by Valinda (Friday Night Lights‘ Connie Britton, above left), who decides she wants to reunite all of her high school friends. Confronting unresolved romantic feelings toward her ex-flame Jack (William Mapother), who went on to marry close friend Zoey (Ione Skye), Valinda is forced to face down her current reality, which includes the possibility of starting a family with uptight husband Will (Tate Donovan), who wishes his wife would stop letting what he views as petty teenage nostalgia rule her daily life.
Also thrown into the mix are Valinda’s 25-year-old, weed-dealing brother Danny (Peter Facinelli); the prim and proper Claire (Sarah Clarke); sexually promiscuous Katrina (Caitlin Keats), now a doctor; Corey (David Herman, of Office Space), a former star who’s crashed and burned via drugs and alcohol, and recently discovered that he’s a father; and Valinda’s ear-ringed, party-crashing neighbor, Mickey, portrayed by the aforementioned Stoltz. It’s a retro-bash reunion fueled by some of the most memorable music of the decade (hits by Billy Idol, the Ramones, Simply Red, A-Ha, Night Ranger and Elvis Costello all get a workout, along with many others), a chatty flick that unabashedly stands on the shoulders of past movies like The Big Chill, Some Kind of Wonderful, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything and of course all the iconic Hughes films of the era.
And yet it’s not just a rip-off or retread; The Lather Effect is more than just a nostalgic trip back to the days of checkerboard Vans, Cutting Crew and Atari videogames. The film works as a backwards glance for those who lived in the era, certainly, but in similar fashion to Dazed and Confused — another movie very specifically rooted in time — one needn’t have grown up back then to recognize the strivings and yearnings of the characters, which are examined sincerely and amusingly. Kelly, whose only previous directorial credit is the From Dusk Til Dawn documentary Full Tilt Boogie, has a romantic streak that doesn’t tip over into the mawkish, and creates a convivial atmosphere where even familiar characterizations come off as more or less fresh. The ensemble cast, meanwhile, all mesh together beautifully, and give one the realistic sense of the thrill, anxiety and tedium such a reunion brings.
Housed in a regular Amray case, The Lather Effect is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and comes with English language Dolby digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo audio tracks. Supplemental features kick off with a warm, open-hearted audio commentary track featuring writer-director Kelly (who points out the Monica Keena cameo), editor Darren Ayres and actor/associate producer Stoltz. A well produced 16-minute making-of featurette includes interviews with Kelly and almost all of the cast, as well as The Big Chill co-writer Barbara Benedek; it opens with Kelly playing the assembled crew a special shout-out from Los Angeles deejay Richard Blade, and features a lot of talk about both the specific players and general nature of ensemble pieces. Herman in particular assays the back-stabbing competitiveness of most such group-focused gigs, but says that this experience has revealed, for him, “positivism and unicorns.” Donovan, meanwhile, (jokingly?) talks about how “it’s funny to see all these actors from the ’80s, kind of washed-up… like me.”
Twenty minutes of deleted scenes are also included, many of which feature legitimate laugh-out-loud moments, as when Herman’s character accidentally visits the bathroom with Britton’s character in the tub, and talks about his “crowning” bowel movement. Two other small but funny featurettes, meanwhile, shed additional light on the bonhomie of shoestring-budgeted independent filmmaking. First is the five-minute “The Importance of Being an Earnest Production Assistant,” in which Kelly recounts her personal experiences on Gettysburg and Killing Zoe and talks — along with others — about how P.A.s are instrumental to a movie’s success, but also a great learning ground. Next up is the seven-minute “The Cameron (Crowe) Effect,” in which Kelly, after having connected in writing with the Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire writer-director through Stoltz and a pair of Los Angeles Times editorials about the role of music in film, anxiously awaits a potential set visit from her spiritual artistic mentor, and talks about his influence on her work. He doesn’t come during production, alas, but there is a happy ending, which is fitting for this poignant, nicely fashioned, light-touch dramedy — a state-of-the-union postcard from a generation never much for emotional self-examination. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. B+ (Mov
ie) A- (Disc)