The Weird Kidz had its world première at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival
In the centre of Black Bird – established only a decade ago in 1975 and, according to its sign, “A real nice place to raise your kids up” – are three 12-year-old friends who embody the community’s first generation of children. They are ‘the weird kidz’, all on the cusp of adolescence, and even as these boys will still be boys, going on adventures with a pet dog, fireworks and a BB gun, they are starting to think about girls, and the future of adulthood that lies ahead. Uncertain Fatt (voiced by Brian Ceely) just likes “watching things happen”, Mel (Glenn Bolton) hopes one day to illustrate comic books, and Dug (Tess Passero) makes funny flipbooks and might one day become an animator (much as Passero’s father Zach is the writer/director and sole animator of the film that they are all in).
For now, though, Dug is obsessed with videogames, and in the opening scene of The Weird Kidz, he is hanging out in Black Bird’s only shop the Guzzle N’ Go!, trying to get to the end of Dug Dug (which is clearly a version of classic arcade game Dig Dug). D(o)ug’s whole identity is bound up in the game – he even shares its name, having dropped the ‘o’ from his own so that he can inscribe himself on the machine’s three-letter-only high score board. When Dug plays as the game’s miner in basic 2D profile battling monsters underground, he visualises himself actually in that cave – much as later, when he is spreading a canister of petrol across a car park, his exertions are presented as though in a videogame, with an emptying bar at the bottom of the screen marking how much fuel remains.
Indeed, much of The Weird Kidz has the feel of a video game, not least because of its simple, expressive style of animation, because of the narrative ‘missions’ (pee out of moving vehicle, steal beer, see a woman’s nipple, rescue Mel’s dog Grumbles, etc.) which the boys have to carry out, and because of the blippy synth track with which the film opens, sounding like the kind of music that might accompany a lo-res Eighties arcade game. When the boys are picked up by Dug’s older brother the wannabe rocker Wyatt (Ellar Coltrane) and his ‘awesome’ girlfriend Mary (Sydney Wharton) for a camping trip out in Jerusalem National Park, they are warned en route by gas store owner Duana (Angela Bettis) of local legend ‘the Night Child’ – and soon Dug really will find himself living his favourite game, trapped in a tunnel with a monster. For all these kids are about to spend one long, dark night of the soul growing up and facing their demons in a scenario that is part Rob Reiner’s boyhood coming-of-ager Stand By Me (1986), part Marko Mäkilaakso’s insectoid apocalypse It Came From The Desert (2017) – which was loosely based on another, later Eighties videogame – and part small-town folk/conspiracy horror like Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried (1981) or Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) or Fritz Kiersch’s Children of the Corn (1984).
Much as there is a cultic sacrificial ceremony, taking place once every quarter of a century, at the heart of The Weird Kidz, this labour of love, hand-drawn over eight years by Passero, is also focused closely on rites of passage. For these kids – whether the three 12-year-olds or the older but still school-age Wyatt and Mary – are all struggling with feelings of abandonment, inferiority or alienation (“We’re in the lost cause club,” Wyatt will tell Dug), all feel betrayed by the adults around them, and all will, over the course of this night, grow to respect both themselves and each other.
While Dug, in many ways the most innocent of them all, may love kicking monster butt in play, in reality he embraces the alien – and with it, both his own feminine side and inner weirdness, in a decade when nerds and geeks were not celebrated as they are today. The innate generosity and good will of both Dug and Mary ensure that this remains an affectionate, amiable escapade from beginning to end, with the monstrous ‘Night Child’ just doing what comes naturally while nurturing its young, and even human nature occasionally showing its kinder side. Along the way, the events and imagery get ever stranger, as alcohol, hallucinogenic bug juice, poisoned brew and small-town Reaganite paranoia about Otherness engender a heady set of circumstances that feel as though they might just be coming from the collective imagination of inventive, oddball kidz as they tell wild campfire tales, picture a comicbook or lay down the foundations for a future work of animation.
Strap: Zach Passero’s affectionate Eighties-inflected animated monster movie lets teen rites of passage camp alongside adult ritual
© Anton Bitel