Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have a filmmaker son named Jack Henry Robbins. Did you know that?
Well, they do, and to his credit, he shamelessly roped them into producing and appearing in his first widely-released feature, VHYes. And though normally I'd say something about how it must be nice, how it's kind of gross, in the case of Robbins' first opus, it's a godsend that his folks helped him realize his movie. VHYES is one of the most delightfully strange and self-aware pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen.
In fact, if I were hard-pressed to pick a shortfall when it comes to Robbins' work, the only thing that comes to mind is how it's aimed squarely at '80s and '90s kids; those born after need not apply—this is not for you. It's shot entirely on VHS, and no, it's not like a Stranger Things situation wherein it doesn't matter if you remember riding bikes with dorks or the mall being a mecca of lust and commerce and kicky hairdos…VHYES captures a look and a vibe you truly need to have experienced to appreciate. That's not meant to exclude, nor does it inherently make VHYes a better movie than others. It's just what it is.
We open with a kid named Ralph (Mason McNulty) on Christmas Day as he unwraps a VHS camcorder. Any semblance of normal quickly dissipates as two things start happening: Ralph repeatedly shoots short and pointless footage of the world around him, and he realizes he can record late night television directly to the camcorder. We descend powerlessly into various shows and movies already in progress, and Robbins' versions of programming reads like the dream version of something one barely remembers.
There's the Bob Ross-esque Joan (The State's Kerri Kenney) who begins her painting with trees and happy clouds before advising us to "move on to the spaceships;" later, she watches us sleep. There's the QVC-esque salesman (Thomas Lennon, also of The State) at odds with his onscreen partner/offscreen ex-wife, both of whom are selling cocaine as cooking supplies. There's even second-rate pornography, with the good stuff edited for television, of course, and a spineless Antiques Roadshow-like host (Mark Proksch of What We Do in the Shadows) with a penchant for the macabre. There's the painfully uncomfortable live music show with host Lou (Charlyne Yi) and her parents, a number of absurdly violent fake commercials, literal aliens and, wonderfully, an ode to classic horror that makes it in under the wire and weirds everything out even further…maybe there's even a murder.
Meanwhile, Robbins throws in references to political unrest with blink-and-miss-it nods to climate change and immigration, all while peripheral concepts of infidelity and skewed realities cinch tighter around us amongst Ralph's filming habits—habits that will read familiar to literally anyone whose folks had a camcorder.
Oh, this might not be for you. It probably isn't. But aging pop culture fanatics are sure to fall in love, as are the elder statesmen of the millennial set. This is pure nostalgia distorted by a visionary that, while at times unnerving and challenging, is truly special.
If the journey is the destination, Robbins absolutely nailed it. Enter if you dare.
+Hysterically weird; oddly comforting
-Most people will be baffled
Directed by Robbins
With McNulty, Lennon, Kenney, Proksch and Yi
Amazon, NR, 72 min.