BY HALEIGH FOUTCH SEPTEMBER 28, 2019
Ah, the glory days of VHS; a time of pre-internet analog pirating, kids who put absolutely everything on tape, and the constant threat of losing precious memories forever if you hit that red record button on the wrong video. Such is the era being celebrated in VHYes, a charming and breezy throwback comedy about a boy in 1987 who gets a new VHS recorder for Christmas and accidentally tapes over his parents’ wedding video.
That’s already a good hook, but the structural brilliance is in the edit — In something of a found-footage format, VHSYes was shot entirely on VHS and Beta, and the film plays out las if you dusted off an old, well-loved home videotape and watched it from start to finish, with all the random scene cuts and interjections that come with it.
Mason McNulty stars as Ralph, the young man in question, and after getting his hands on the recorder, he proceeds to put everything on tape in the following days. Fully embracing the fun potential of his concept, director Jack Henry Robbins weaves a tapestry of overlapping narratives — both those from the family’s daily life, and those they record from their favorite TV shows. In doing so, he mostly side-steps tradition narrative in favor of an interwoven series of funny, occasionally emotional vignettes.
The TV segments take up most of the film’s runtime, and they’re varying levels of funny featuring comedy regulars like Thomas Lennon, Courtney Pauroso,Kerri Kenney, Mark Proksch, Charlene Yi, along with a couple of starrier cameos from Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. There’s the home shopping hosts with an awkward romantic history (Lennon and Pauroso), some old-school late-night cable softcore with sexy space aliens, and a bizarre Bob Ross-esque soft-spoken artist (Kenney) who pretty much steals the movie. As VHYes skips back and forth between snippets of Ralph’s favorite TV shows, we keep track of the countless storylines, all of which lead to a pretty satisfying payoff in their own right.
But VHYes is more than a clever parlor trick of editing and interwoven narratives. The film gets its heart through Ralph’s day-to-day story, glimpsed between the comedy characters, during which he accidentally captures what is likely the beginning of his parents’ divorce. That throughline weaves through the antics like an undercurrent of heartache in the humor, revealing the cracks in their relationship from the day of their wedding to the week of Ralph’s post-Christmas camcorder adventures.
VHYes also makes some unexpected choices as it comes to a close that strive for new levels of genre and ambition, taking things in surprising directions. Some of those choices play better than others, but overall the film’s final bold swings cement VHYes as an ambitious and clever piece of indie filmmaking that embraces its concept for all it has to offer.
We see VHYes entirely through Ralph’s 12-year-old eyes; through the hyper channel-changing of a bored tween, who captures his parents’ crumbling relationship without quite knowing what he’s seeing, and flips through the horrors of daily news in the late 80s on the hunt for his favorite shows. Robbins is completely convincing in his efforts to transport us into the mind’s eye of an 80s kid, who’s just trying to make sense of a demented world. There’s no shortage of hit series and films out there that traffic in commoditized nostalgia, VHYes feels like the real deal, bittersweet as the real thing.
Better yet, as the chaos of the independent segments starts to click into focus, the fragmented characters from both the TV segments and Ralph’s real-world come to life, while the film’s deeper themes start to click into focus. Robbins ties those themes up with a delightful thread of meta-comedy, hinged on a behavioral scientist who fears for the future of the human race if we continue to pivot culture towards video content, and well, it sounds a whole lot like social media and smartphone culture as we know it today.
VHYes shares some DNA with the type of oddball sketches you’d find on Adult Swim, but Robbins has something to say beneath his chaos, and most importantly, a whole lot of heart. Always entertaining and surprising, VHYes gives you a chaotic trip back to the 80s that’s emotionally complex, structurally brilliant, and often, laugh-out-loud funny.
VHYes had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019.