“What is it about the suburbs?”, wonders Mary (Deanna Russo) aloud in The Ice Cream Truck, as the driver of an actual ice cream truck waves to her from the street. There is something hyperreal, dare one say it, ‘Lynchian’, about this scene – the perfect houses, the immaculate lawns, the sunny skies, and that truck promising good homespun sweetness. For Mary, returned to her hometown after years of living in the hustle and bustle of Seattle, the nosy neighbours, the visible disapproval of others when she curses or makes sexual references, the small-minded bonhomie, are all a bit cloying – but she also cannot deny being drawn to the intensely wholesome nostalgia of it all.
Mary is moving back into the scene of her childhood, and has come several days ahead of her husband and two children (one by a prior marriage) to set up their new home and to have a bit of time to herself – indeed this will, as she states, be her first real alone time in the thirteen years since she became a mother. Mary is a freelance writer, and hoping to use these few days to get some words into her computer – but she keeps being interrupted by the creepy furniture delivery man (Jeff Daniel Phillips), by the local pill-popping soccer moms (Hilary Barraford, Lisa Ann Walter, LaTeace Towns-Cuellar), and by the music from the ever prowling ice cream truck. “I should go out and have some wild nights,” she jokes to her husband on the phone, “reclaim my youth, or whatever.”
In a sense, that is just what Mary does, hanging out – and even smoking up – with Max (John Redlinger), a neighbour’s son who is the same age as she was when she left this place, and whose growing sexual interest in her she finds both flattering and tempting. “You so do not seem a grownup,” Max’s girlfriend Tracy (Bailey Anne Borders) tells Mary, even if Max insists half-jokingly on calling Mary ‘Mom’ – but nonetheless, thirtysomething Mary is revisiting the years that she lost to early motherhood, and will regress further as the film goes on, culminating in a climax (in more than one sense) on the climbing frames and activity towers of a children’s playground.
As Mary takes this trip down memory lane, the soft-spoken, soft-scooping young ice cream man (Emil Johnsen) – a self-professed “old-fashioned guy” in white-collared shirt and bow tie – begins bloodily murdering the locals, without rhyme or reason, and it is clear that Mary’s errant explorations of her new/old environment are destined to intersect with the course of this madman’s killing spree. Written and directed by Megan Freels Johnston (Rebound, 2014), granddaughter of novelist Elmore Leonard, The Ice Cream Truck assumes the partial guise of a suburban slasher – but it is far more interested in tracking Mary’s confused hiatus (and hot-and-cold feelings about small-town living) than in making any sense of the neighbourhood purveyor of chilled confectionery and even frostier kills.
There is, in the end, a reason for that (and this is something of a spoiler): The Ice Cream Truck is in fact less close to the neighbourhood slaughter of, say, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) than to the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003) and Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020). For these are all films which realise the creative process of blocked writers – and, left to her own devices, author Mary too is working her dislocated sense of return into a half-baked crime story inspired by the darkness that she sees in both her bright surroundings and changing circumstances. So while, for anyone expecting a straight slasher, Johnston’s film may disappoint, it works very well as an expression of a family woman’s forbidden fantasies and neurotic anxieties about lost youth, all writ large on at least one screen.
© Anton Bitel