When the film opens, it seems to be the rare Hollywood release to leave developments up to implication rather than spelling them out. We see a steel mill changing its "days since accident" sign to one, and come to piece together that the mother of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has died. His father Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a policeman, doesn't handle it well at all, and suggests Joe take measures to to alleviate the grief (i.e. re-planning his summer). Joe, though, wants to do makeup for his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), who's attempting to make a short for a film festival/contest. He's making it along with a team of other kids, including a pyromaniac and a couple of nerds.
The film, like the work of nearly all amateur videographers (including my own from years past), is full of horrible acting and strange effects (done without digital here, it being the late 1970's). It has that wonder of the product of children, though. (This is one of the many much remarked-upon ways Abrams tips his hat to Steven Spielberg, a huge shadow over this work.) Charles obsesses over lending the film better "production value" and tries to get shots with trains and military personnel. He's much more worried about style than substance, and cobbles together the plot as he goes along, getting a girl he and many others have a crush on, Alice (Elle Fanning), to join the team as an actress. (She ends up hitting it off better with Joe, as you knew she would.) When they are shooting a scene with her by the train tracks, a train smashes into a car and sets off a long series of explosions, leaving behind cubes as detritus.
This event, the first of many similar ones to happen in the film, is the beginning of what really becomes the main plot of the film. It renders the part on moviemaking to the category of "incident" and thus really throws aside its best hope at setting itself apart from the rest. The film goes on to juggle an impressive but ultimately unmanageable number of plots, and ends up just throwing together tropes to get to the finish line. It puts an emphasis on being tidy (everything HAS to work out in the end), but at the same time, it opens up so many cans of worms it shouldn't even dream of actually making sense. And don't even get me started on how heavy-handed the film eventually becomes, which even the least cynical viewer will groan about.
But the film does have strengths that, had they been expanded on, could have been the building blocks for a stellar film. The most prominent attribute is the humor, which is brilliantly timed. Abrams, who wrote the screenplay, has a sharp eye for engaging conversational dialogue. He directs the (mostly no-name) actors also in a way that will ensure that each morsel of comedy will be realized by the audience. The film also has a way of stringing things together that it gets marginally close to pulling off, though the imperfection is definitely pronounced.
The biggest problem here, one that compromises things in the end, is that Abrams doesn't seem to have that much of an overall imagination, and even though he sprinkles moments of genius throughout (a certain set piece reminded me of Fritz Lang), the whole that results at times falls into the doldrums. Save his directorial debut "Mission Impossible III," I've seen all of Abrams' feature-length efforts. Not one of them has exceeded my expectations. Until he makes a truly wondrous movie, I'm going to conclude all further reviews of his films by speaking directly to the man, saying the same thing I have twice before. Here goes: Better luck next time, J.J. C+