“The Toy Soldiers” opens with the words “Our Feature Presentation,” outlined in lavender neon as they might’ve been more than 40 years ago. That’s a tip to expect a ’70s-style indie film that’s transgressive, assaultive and propulsive.
Producer-writer-director Erik Peter Carlson had nobody to tell him “no” on the set or in the editing room. So perhaps he didn’t realize (or care) that the film feels 20 minutes too long – also a common trait of ’70s indies – and, during a jittery beginning, can be confusing.
Yet the rough honesty hooks you, and overlapping storylines eventually sort themselves out. Carlson seems like Todd Solondz with more optimism, a guy willing to show us the ugliness of life in the belief we might pass through it to some hard-won beauty.
The title comes from the name of a skating rink where kids of 18 or 19 gather, vaguely hoping to save it before it’s torn down in the late 1980s. That subplot doesn’t matter much: It’s their own lives they really hope to save before subsiding into despair.
Most of them belong or relate to the Harris family. Elliot Harris (Chandler Rylko), adrift one year after high school, tries to anchor himself to elusive, intelligent Angel (Najarra Townsend). His younger brother, Jack (Samuel Nolan), can’t decide whether to commit to a gay relationship before his potential partner leaves town.
Their mother (Constance Brenneman), a high school teacher whose husband has left, takes refuge in alcohol and the arms of a student. The two other main characters, gentle misfit Steve (Nick Frangione) and Layla, who sleeps around at $10 a throw (Jeanette May), can scarcely accept that they may be right for each other.
At first, the dialogue sounds too familiar. Then you realize this was the way teenagers talked then (and perhaps still do), partly because they’d learned how to relate to each other by watching movies and TV and repeating clichés they’d heard.
The film stays raw in its visual style and the drug use and violence it depicts, but mostly in showing the emotions that lie so close to the thin surface of a teenaged psyche.
Fear of humiliation, rejection or ostracism infects all these characters, sometimes even the adults. The saddest moment comes when Layla realizes mild Steve the Peeve, as even supposed friends call him, will risk a beating to protect her from three boys who insist on sex. She stares at him with disbelief that anyone would waste emotion on her, because she can’t imagine she deserves loyalty or respect.
One huge coincidence mars the ending, though we find out at that point why we’ve followed Mary’s story for so long. (I cared more about the teens.) Only that moment and the ages of the actors, who all look 25 to 30, distract from the reality Carlson creates.
The acting’s never less than adequate and occasionally quite good: The mournful May and shy Frangione stand out, and Townsend makes her few scenes memorable. Isidore Pollak has a powerful small role as a boy with Tourette’s syndrome, whom Layla dates as a practical joke paid for by his classmates. Their scenes together remind us how casually cruel people can be when their own self-esteem lies in the dirt.