Sunday, July 21, 2024

‘Snack Shack’ is a Bittersweet Treat

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While watching Snack Shack, I was awash in nostalgic memories of my youth. The film walks the tightrope of being raunchy and tenderhearted while authentically capturing what it’s like being young, stupid, and stuck in the Midwest. It’s a movie that is not for everyone, and it’s all the better for it.

Adam Carter Rehmeier’s Snack Shack follows two teenagers, AJ (Conor Sherry) and Moose (Gabriel LaBelle), as they spend a summer running the concession stand at the community pool. Rehmeier’s script eschews a structure and feels like an ambling stroll down memory lane. Unlike so many coming-of-age movies, Snack Shack isn’t about the one summer everything changed but about one summer among many summers.

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AJ (Conor Sherry) and Moose (Gabriel LaBelle) work the snack shack at the local pool.

Sherry and LaBelle are both in their twenties. The duo captures the impossible-to-understand bravado accompanying the terrifying awkwardness that pervades the teenage years. Sherry, in particular, moves as if his limbs operate on independent controls. For his part, LaBelle manages to play Moose with a thin shell of bluster that crumples under the slightest pressure, and you see the scared kid underneath. The duo plays off each other with frantic passion, perfectly playing the mess of emotions that have teenage boys beating the tar out of each other because they’re such good friends.

Set in 1991, AJ and Moose are the typical odd couple: AJ, the shy, bookish introvert, and Moose, the loud-mouthed best friend. Moose is the kind of teenager who doesn’t have ideas; he has schemes, his mind a constant whir of playing the angles and getting the most out of every loophole. He’s a stark contrast to AJ, who goes along because he likes Moose but doesn’t understand why Moose can never stick to the rules they agree on or learn when to say when.

Whether it’s the home-brewed beer the two have stashed away and hope to turn into a small business or sneaking off to the race track when their school takes a field trip to the zoo, AJ and Moose can’t help themselves. Much of Snack Shack is from AJ’s perspective; though we see glimpses of Moose’s home life, it’s AJ’s family we see the most of.

AJ’s father, a local judge, is called Judge (David Costabile), and his mother, Jean (Gillian Vigman), is an auctioneer. The remarkable thing is how Rehemier draws these characters so specifically. My father was a computer engineer, and my mother cleaned houses and later became a housewife, but watching Judge and Jean, I felt like I was back in Raymore.

Rehemier’s dialogue gives The Big Lebowski a run for its money in terms of cussword per minute. But that’s par for the course. A taboo around certain words at that age makes saying them feel so mature and dirty simultaneously. But the humor in Snack Shack isn’t satisfied with cheap laughs. One scene has AJ haggling about how to pay back his savings and ends with Jean rambling off numbers as if they were bids while Judge provides commentary.

Snack Shack harkens back to a time and a place before the internet. Boredom was a real thing, and you had to come up with ways to kill time. Getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, and walking around town arguing with your best friend while the oppressive chorus of katydids echoed around you was a full day. If you didn’t do that, you probably did what I did: hang out at the local Video Junction, renting stacks of movies while gushing over the hot video store clerk who was in your grade but whom you didn’t have any classes with. The universe can be a cruel place.

At one point, AJ gives his parents tickets to Mannheim Steamroller. Their reactions may seem over the top to you, but as someone who grew up in the Midwest then, I think that it borders on being so authentic that it might as well have been out of a Cassavetes movie. Rehmeier knows this, and the moment isn’t played for laughs; instead, it is meant to show how AJ is maturing faster than Moose in some regards.

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Brooke (Mika Abdalla) is the literal girl next door.

Rehmeier understands that every fourteen-year-old thinks their life is complicated. It’s not until we’re much older that we realize how little we had to worry about. However, two people will blow into town this summer and change AJ forever.

The first is Shane (Nick Robinson), a Gulf War vet returning home. A local celebrity, he mentors AJ and Moose, telling them where the bodies are buried and giving them sage advice about life. Shane has problems with his life being mapped out for him, including a college and a major he doesn’t seem excited about.

The other is the literal girl next door, Brooke (Mika Abdalla). An army brat, she’s visiting her cousin for the summer. Brooke is the slightly older girl whose existence rewires and melts boys’ brains. Refreshingly, Rehmeier doesn’t make her a villain or an antagonist. The love triangle that develops between her, AJ, and Moose is explored as what it is: three kids learning about sex and feelings.

Abdalla’s Brooke is an enigma by design. Yet, Rehmeier allows Brooke a layer of agency and interior life that girls in coming-of-age movies rarely get. Yes, she is the object of lust for Moose and AJ, but she’s also aware of it. She’s having fun, and while she enjoys Moose, she’s drawn to AJ. Rehmeier shows us three kids fumbling through puberty and doesn’t laugh at them, instead showing a deep, abiding compassion towards them.

He even understands that boys can be cruel without understanding how, especially to girls they like who may not want them back. The hurt is real, but they haven’t realized how to process it or express themselves, so they lash out. Rehmeier eschews tying up loose ends, courting the messiness of early teen years, and keeps his story moving.

Rehmeier isn’t trying to tell a story so much as to capture a moment. Towards the end, something happens that would have been fabricated melodrama in another movie. But in Rehmeier’s hands, it floored me, perhaps because I had a similar experience as many have. The moment is treated with the gravitas it deserves, pulling the rowdy antics of Snack Shack to a halt.

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Shane (Nick Robinson) as the older mentor to AJ and Moose.

Remarkably, Snack Shack strolls along with all of this as merely a backdrop. There’s no bet, wacky misunderstanding, or some other manufactured drama. Instead, Rehemier and his cameraman, Jean-Phillipe Bernier, sit back and watch as the summer days drift into summer nights. Bernier’s camera acts like the eye of an adult AJ, looking back with a bittersweet maturity.

Snack Shack is a slice of nostalgia not accompanied by rose-colored glasses. Rehmeier sidesteps formulaic structures and popular screenwriting programs and delivers a heartfelt reminiscence of a slice of life. He deftly captures how teenagers never stop moving but will do everything they can to get out of work. Snack Shack is a comedy not about growing up but about how we don’t even notice we’re growing up.

Images courtesy of Republic Pictures

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