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January 22, 2011

Movie Review: 1985-1986 (2011)

Evan Jacobs has been making his own brand of very personal films since the late nineties. Movies like WALKING BETWEEN THE RAINDROPS, THE TOLL COLLECTOR and SCHUSTERMAN LEVINE: A BOXING FABLE are all very unique and distinct glimpses into the mind of this talented and eclectic artist who seems bent on never selling out or repeating himself. His latest, 1985-1986, which has the distinction of being his first animated film, is no different.

Buy 1985-1986 on DVD!

Jacobs wrote, directed, edited and animated this
feature, using Wacom Tablet and Toon Boom Studios.
It is a very detailed chronicle of the two years he spent in Victor Middle School in Southern California. It is a fairly uncompromising and honest look back at his own formative years. And that honesty is the films greatest strength, and its largest failing.

The movie opens with Erol Jacobs (for some reason, Evan changes his first name for this only-slightly fictionalized autobiographical account, but not his last) leaving home for his first day at middle school. The voice over narration tells us that this story is true to the best of the author's recollection. Jacobs then goes on to admit that he may have altered some of these events so that they reflect more favorably on him than the reality, but never intentionally so. That is a disarmingly honest way to begin a movie. It is honest to itself, as all good art should be.

Here, right off the bat, he also articulates the closest thing the movie has to a theme: "If I learned anything in middle school, it's that being true to yourself is the most important thing of all."

Erol, we learn, came from nice suburban grammer school where "if somebody said they were going to beat you up after school, it was forgotten by recess." He soon learns that is n
ot the case at Vince Middle School. "There were gang members, and those who wanted to be gang members, and then everybody else." The first event he encounters at school is a guy arguing
with him over whether a boxer or a karate master would win in a fight. The other guy
becomes very aggressive and tries to pick a fight.

That sets up what we will see happening over and over again in this movie: aggressive young people trying to assert themselves by threatening violence. So much so that it gets tiring. Although this is probably true to the reality of the events, we get the idea pretty quickly. This is, in fact, the movies greatest weakness: it plays too much like reality. Often it is little more than a chronicle of events, and needs desperately to be structured much more tightly around its themes. At only 75 minutes, its episodic structure still makes it become very tedious at times.

In his attempt to understand and integrate into this poorly-defined and fickle society, Erol attempts to assume the mantle of tough guy himself; a persona that ill-fits him. In a lesser work this would lead to Erol getting a serious ass-kicking and a comeuppance. But here it sort of just fizzles out and gets discarded and lost in the shuffle of shifting loyalties. In this world, nothing is permanent. There is no loyalty and there is no direction.
In the end, Erol simply becomes disgusted, bored and tired of constantly trying to redefine himself to meet the ever-changing expectations of the others around him. He finally concludes (as he told us up front) to simply be true to himself. And a worthwhile lesson that certainly is. One can only wish that it had been expressed in a more focused manner.

The use of animation to tell this story is interesting because of its resonance for the age-group of the characters depicted. But also it is ironic because of the realistic handling of the material. However, the crude animation, charming though it may be, is not sufficiently dense to hold attention for the length of the picture.

Still, even with all its short comings, 1985-1986 is very sincere and full of heart and honesty and depicts experiences most of us can relate to. That is a good deal more than one gets from most movies these days, large budget or small.

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