CAPSULE: LIGHT YEARS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Colin Thompson

FEATURING: Colin Thompson, Russell Posner, Makenzie Leigh

PLOT: A man takes psychedelic mushrooms on the anniversary of his friend’s death and relives a mushroom trip they had together when they were sixteen.

Still from Light Years (2019)

COMMENTS: The hinted-at plot in Light Years never really develops. Instead, what happens is that we watch a trio of likable kids nervously score mushrooms, take mushrooms, try to hold it together without their parents finding out they’re high on mushrooms, go to a high school party on mushrooms, chop wood at midnight (on… you get the idea), and generally just hang out. The movie is light, as its title implies. The mood is nostalgic, like The Wonder Years—on mushrooms. There’s not a lot in the way of a meaningful ongoing story— although there are lots of incidents—and really only token character development. The story is framed as an elegy for Kevin’s friend Briggs, who died under circumstances that aren’t relevant to the movie, and what it does well is to capture the carefree pleasure of teenage camaraderie. You can tell, without even looking at the end credits disclaimer stating that the film was inspired by actual events, that it’s based on writer/director Colin Thompson’s real life experiences. There’s no other possible explanation for the movie’s existence.

The acting is unexpectedly decent. Pimply Briggs (Russell Posner) actually looks and acts like a high school sophomore, with an unselfconscious awkwardness and endearingly goofy mannerisms, like the ghoulish open-faced smile he routinely breaks into. He and Kevin have a real chemistry, sharing a private ritual where they spar with improvised dialogue in increasingly silly voices. This chemistry is more remarkable due to the fact that young Kevin is (most of the time) played by old Kevin, the heavily-stubbled-and-clearly-not-a-teenager Colin Thompson. Thompson also plays—again, most of the time—the third friend, Larry; and, in drag, he also takes the roles of his own ex, and the mom of the kid who’s throwing a keg party for the high schoolers and bringing along a tray of jello shots, and a lot of the extras. All these Kevins appear partly because of a subtext that Kevin is a narcissist. But mainly it’s just a part of the director’s trip-disorientation strategy, one that also includes abrupt changes in film stock, occasional collage-style montages and music videos, video warping and glitching, and animated characters appearing in the unused corners of the film (recurring cartoon characters like a cutout of adult Kevin’s dog, and some kind of derp-faced flying cat in a sailor cap).

The thought that Light Years inspires most in me is the question: is psychedelic cinema a legitimate subgenre? Despite the possibilities for deep introspection psychedelics promise, the “trip movie” rarely features any kind of serious plot or philosophy; it’s almost always an excuse for stylistic and technical experimentation. A short line of (almost) non-narrative movies beginning with The Trip seek to recreate the feeling and experience of being on psychedelic drugs for the audience. The hallucinatory qualities of psychedelics are easy (and fun!) to symbolize visually, but the experience of having your brain’s natural neurotransmitters temporarily pranked by chemical interlopers—the complex combination of euphoria, wonder, anxiety and confusion—is harder to reproduce. In the most successful trip film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, scenes of Hunter S. Thompson enjoying cocktails in a Vegas lounge surrounded by kitschy dinosaurs, or trying to redeem his hotel reservation while the desk clerk’s face warps unpredictably, effectively recreate the edginess of druggy disorientation. But that movie works on multiple levels: as drug porn, sure, but also as a straight-out comedy, and as a dual-edged social satire of both the dominant 1960s culture and of the very subculture it superficially celebrates. Light Years is not quite light years away from that achievement, but it does suggest that hallucinations alone can only take a movie so far. LSD has been around, on film and in life, for six decades now; it’s no longer novel or outrageous, merely naughty. A trip is not enough to sustain a great film; you need a plot and/or a deeper theme to carry you across the finish line.

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