Let’s face it: when it comes to being a geek, there is a certain level of childishness that comes with it. We spend time focusing on the minutia of our obsessions, litter our shelves with nerdy objects and in general tend to hold onto a great fondness for our childhood loves. Growing up tends to be something of a balancing act, as we take on adult responsibility and maturity whilst still holding on to our geeky passions.
Its no wonder then that as our fellow geeks have come into being filmmakers, television producers, writers and artists, we have seen a surge of films that try and address that tension between childhood geek-dom and entering into adulthood: Free Enterprise, Clerks II, and Shaun of the Dead amongst others have explored this theme, usually organizing the conflict through the trials and tribulations of their protagonists’ romantic pursuits. In each of the mentioned films, the female partners sought become the guide and symbol of adult life, and whom our heroes must meet in maturity.
Joining this canon of films is Brad Jones fourth feature length film Game Boys. The film marks a break from Jones previous efforts Cheap, Freak Out and the yet-to-be-released-online Midnight Heat, which have all played in the exploitation film sandbox. Game Boys focuses on Scott (Jones), and old school gamer who as the film starts is dumped by his girlfriend of six months. Given that Scott is prone to drinking, his roommate and friend Ray (Alex Shryock) comes up with a plan to get Scott’s mind off of his ex: hold a video game competition/party built around (arguably) the most notorious video game in existence, Custard’s Revenge. Scott is less than enthused with the idea of the party (and the game itself), but gets onboard when he realises the event holds the opportunity to get close to Sally (Bianca Queen), a fellow classic gamer. The only problem? Getting a copy of the game itself.
Game Boys is both literally and figuratively a film of growing pains, as Scott works out his life and Jones launches into different territory for him in his feature length work. Moving away from his plot heavy horror/thrillers, Jones focuses on a narrative that is stripped down both in terms of plot and thematic complexity, a change that does lead to a few problems for the film as a whole. The looser structure of the film leads to several sequences that go on too long, most notably the montage sequences, and some important characters, including Sally, are underdeveloped while more simplistic characters such as Steve receive more screen time. And at points, the gaming dialogue goes a tad too far, working in gaming references at points when more straightforward dialogue would have worked in the film‘s favour.
However, for all the film’s flaws, Game Boys is Jones’ best film yet, showcasing a greater sense of confidence and control as a filmmaker from when he first began. As the film opens, we are introduced to Scott and Ray in a simple conversation that quickly and effectively establishes who the characters are, with a snappy rhythm built out of the performances and editing that shows none of the beginning filmmaker uncertainty in his earlier films. By the time the film launches into its excellent opening credits sequence, which between the images of classic advertisements and music clearly outlines the film’s exploration of nostalgic longing and comfort, there is no doubt that Jones knows where he is taking his audience as we wander through the classic gaming subculture, including instructional videos, back ally game dealers and gaming obsessed mothers.
At its best, Game Boys is a character focused comedy of people and places familiar to the geek set, deftly blending moments of absurdity with an understanding of the fine details of geek life. Moreover, in taking on a romantic comedy, Jones allows his innate likeability to shine through as an actor, making an effective romantic comedy lead. Luckily, in Bianca Queen, Jones has an actor of equal strength to play off of, and the chemistry between the two allows for the relationship to have an innocent sweetness despite some of the characters’ rougher edges. More uneven is Shryock, who occasionally oversteps the fine line between being a heightened character and being slightly like a cartoon, but more often than not he finds the right balance for most of his scenes.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is the way in which Jones avoids the road of showing nostalgia as being something which needs to be grown out of, and in the process avoids transforming Sally into little more than a end goal to be reached by Scott. Nostalgia here is an important part of all the characters here, and it becomes the foundation for a community. Given this, Scott’s quest is not one in which he seeks to leave behind the community, or grows out of it, but grows within it. With this, Jones manages to avoid the clichés of the romantic comedy genre for the most part, and build scenes out of small moments, such as the wonderfully tender final shot of the film.
The one element of the film which does need to be addressed is the film’s most controversial plot point, that of Custard’s Revenge being the focus of the film’s narrative. While I am not going to describe what the game is about, I will say that the game is one of the most horrific and sexist games ever put to market, and its placement at the heart of an otherwise light comedy is certainly a curious choice. Within the film, Jones does go out of his way to acknowledge the game’s content and address it, partly by the volatile reactions demonstrated by some characters towards the game, and in part because the game is ultimately acknowledged as trash. Indeed, (SPOILERS) part of the point of the film’s conclusion is that the game and the contest built around it is a fruitless endeavour in and of itself, and that the sense of community built around gaming is the real core of the film. However, because the film never fully addresses the issue head on and places it to the margins, it can potentially make some audiences uncomfortable. Moreover, I do believe that the game does have a thematic point as well, but I will be the first to acknowledge that the film doesn’t nearly develop this thematically enough to be able to say that it is a defendable point. (SPOILERS END).
At the end of the day, save that one quibble, I give Game Boys a full recommendation, and it can be viewed at Jones' site here. It is a flawed film, but one that has more passion and understanding of geek culture then some films which are available. With any luck, Jones will return to feature length filmmaking again, and with any luck will once again push himself into a new direction as he develops as a filmmaker.