Perhaps a bit heavy handed and occasionally overacted, Erik Peter Carlson’s The Toy Soldiers is nonetheless a sincere and effective portrait of youth culture facing the impending conservative doom of Reagan Americanism. It’s the beginning of the 1980s: John Lennon has just been assassinated, the war in Vietnam is at an end but paranoia is still afloat, the Cold War continues ever onward, the rock n’ roll hippy days are now a thing of the nostalgic past, and every family of the United States is expected to behave like the Cleavers of Leave it to Beaver fame. You may not own a fancy suburban home or have a white picket fence protecting your humble abode, but you damn well better act like you do. Every young man and woman in America is expected to play their part, to do their duty. Like the title implies, the forces that control society treat its youth like toy soldiers without any consideration of their feelings, wants or deep desires. Their souls must be stripped bare and America can only function properly if they behave like automatons. For the troubled teens and their even more anxiety-ridden parents on the fringes of society, this sudden shift in culture proves too much to bear.
Carlson takes one fictitious sampling of middle class Los Angeles during this time period and wisely chooses to depict their individual stories in parallel tandem. Most of the drama takes place at a local roller rink which is about to close its doors for good – a metaphor for the death of American social liberalism – aptly named “The Toy Soldiers Roller Rink.” Despite its atmospheric promotion of merriment and joy, there is nothing innocent about this hangout spot. During one wild night, secrets are revealed, lives are destroyed, and the very fabrics of social decency unravel without anyone truly brave enough to stop it. The audience is treated to different perspectives leading up to this fateful evening, as well as the fallout that comes when these characters come to a head and are pitted against each other by the invisible strings of hegemony.
The first of these interconnected stories follows a closeted teenager named Jack Harris (Samuel Nolan), who fears his homosexuality is on the precipice of embarrassing exposure. On top of that, his mother is an alcoholic and prescription drug abuser, his brother faces his own demons, and his formerly abusive dad has been out of the picture and only now wants to swing back in and save the day. Nolan’s boyfriend Wilson is a skilled dancer and has just landed a big career opportunity but Harris begs him not to leave for fear of dealing with his secret all by himself. Harris’ girlfriend has her suspicions but can’t seem to put two and two together when Jack consistently fails to get aroused during foreplay. Jack’s vignette ends more dramatically than you’d expect – some might argue unbelievably – but it’s a testament to Carlson’s insistence on honest character depiction that his players all receive the poignant conclusion that befits this era.
Next up is Steve the Peeve, a socially awkward senior in high school who suffers (I believe) from erectile dysfunction but wants to find true love at any cost. The bullies at school play a trick on him by paying off the school’s most sexually experienced girl, Layla (Jeanette May Steiner), to go on a date with Steve and falsify her interest in him. The silly thing about the situation is that Steve is fully aware that Layla performed this sting operation once before with Harold Beaver (Izzy Pollak), a boy who suffers from a severe case of Tourette syndrome. Despite this knowledge, Steve is optimistic and believes Layla is genuine in her desire to go out with him, and while that doesn’t at first appear to be the case, Layla is far from the “school slut” everyone makes her out to be.
The best of these short stories is the one with the least propensity for melodrama: Elliot Harris’ (Chandler Rylko) battle with drugs and his attempts to find a connection with someone that isn’t steeped in fakery. Harris’ subplot is the only one that doesn’t feel overblown or showy — it’s frank, subtle and covers a range of complicated teen emotions. When Harris meets the sweet yet guarded Angel (Najarra Townsend), the two find solace in one another’s pain and bond together so suddenly but amazingly that you’re instantly washed with a grand feeling of hope. In fact, their sex scene might be the best of the entire year. Deeply intimate, the scene refrains from being explicit or tasteless – it floats along with tender care thanks to some beautiful editing that respects the most exhilarating of unions without cheapening it. Both actors here deserve to become major stars in their own right. Rylko is a Josh Hartnett in the making, while Najarra Townsend has the talent to become the next Jessica Chastain or Amy Adams. There’s no quota for red-headed talents as far as I’m concerned.
The final two vignettes, featuring Mary Harris (Constance Brennerman) and a combination of Beaver, Layla and Steve, are unnecessary and are mired too deep in conventional storytelling. The film runs over two hours, and cutting these two stories would have tightened the focus of youth culture and made for a less messy film overall. The Toy Soldiers overstays its welcome after the first 90 minutes, but its tenacious spirit and refreshing honesty about the horrors teens faced during the Reagan administration make it a true keeper among youth-driven films.
The Toy Soldiers will have a limited theatrical release this Friday, November 14th in select cities. Check out the trailer below!