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PARK CITY - As we were waiting for a press and industry screening of "Toy's House" to start today, I said to a few friends I was sitting with, "This Sundance is distressingly light on Nick Offerman sightings so far." When they informed me that he was part of the cast of "Toy's House," I took that to be a very good sign indeed, since I had no idea that was the case. I knew nothing about the film when walking in today except that my friend Erik Davis saw it at an earlier screening and really enjoyed it.
As you can see from the photo at the top of this review, Nick Offerman and Allison Brie are both in the film, and they're certainly good in it. It would be deceptive to say they are the stars of the film, though, because the real center of this picture, written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is the unlikely summer friendship between Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), Patrick Keenan (Gabriel Basso), and the official winner of the "Oh my god have you seen this guy?" award for this year's Sundance Film Festival, Moises Arias, who plays Biaggio. These three guys have just finished their freshman year of high school, and while it wasn't exactly a living hell, they don't seem to have made any real shift in their spot in the social pecking order. Joe and Patrick are old friends, while Biaggio just sort of starts hanging around. He decides these are his friends and he just joins them. Constantly. Whether he's been invited or not.
As the film opens, Joe and Patrick are each chafing at the way things work in their homes. Joe's mother died and now it's just him and his father Frank (Nick Offerman), a match that does not work. Joe has an older sister, Heather (Alison Brie), but she got out as soon as she could and now only drives home on occasion, often accompanied by her boyfriend Colin (Eugene Cordero), who is eager to impress Frank in pretty much every conversation they have. Patrick has both his parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), and they smother him. They embarrass him. He can't be around them without getting sarcastic. He's convinced they're trying to drive him crazy, and it's working. He's started getting hives from stress. The two of them realize they've got to change the way things are going, and it's Joe who has the big idea when he is walking home from a party and finds a private spot in the woods that is cut off from the rest of the world. He convinces Patrick to build a house with him, a house out in that secluded spot, where no one will see it, where they can escape from their parents. Biaggio just invites himself along, but quickly becomes friends with both Joe and Kevin as they build the house. Once it's ready, they grab some supplies and they split. They don't say goodbye. They don't leave notes. They just go.
And for a while? It's perfect. The real charm of "Toy's House" is the way it unfolds a fairly simple story with an unexpected voice. Offerman's character, for example, is pretty richly realized, and he plays it perfectly. One of the strangest parts of the experience of watching this for me is that for the first time watching a coming of age story, it was the parent who I found myself identifying with. Offerman makes Frank into so much more than just the flawlessly delivered one-liners guy. Yes, he has deadly timing, and yes, he lands some of the biggest laughs in the movie, but Offerman is a really good actor across the board. He knows how to wring every laugh out of something while also keep it clear that there's something real happening underneath that laugh. He and his son don't know how to bridge this absence between them since Joe's mother died. And Alison Brie does really nice work, even though she's not in a lot of the film. I especially love the dynamic between her and Eugene Cordero in the film. Cordero does a spectacular job of playing that tension about wanting the girl's father to like you, and he earns some big laughs. Anyone who can draw my attention in a scene that Nick Offerman is already in had better be awesome, and Cordero is hilarious and real, start to finish.
Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, and Moises Arias have to carry the film. It's all about their friendship, their summer. If they don't get it right actors, and if we don't believe their friendship, then the film starts to fall apart thematically. Arias is a visual marvel, and he seems well aware of how striking a visual figure he cuts. It's not stunt casting, though, because Arias has fantastic comic chops. He's got deadly timing, and he knows how to make his unique visual impact count. Nick Robinson is an appealing kid in the lead, but he's also capable of subtle work that is impressive. He's the one who has the idea. He's the one who the movie ostensibly follows. He's the one who changes the most during the time that he and Patrick and Biaggio run away from home.
That, of course, is what the film is really about, that moment where young people have to assert some degree of independence, where they have to test limits and challenge their parents. And while much of "Toy's House" is playing for laughs, and it is very funny indeed, there is still something genuine underneath that. Even a character as weird as Biaggio gets his moment where he punches through past the joke to become fully-formed. Vogt-Roberts has a strong visual signature and the script by Galetta gives everyone something to do. It's not a case of one or two strong characters and a bunch of half-realized background characters. Here's a good test: would I watch a different movie about any of the characters in this film? In this case, I can think of at least three other movies I would have equally interested in featuring other characters from the film. That's the difference to me sometimes between something worth supporting and something temporary. I've seen plenty of funny movies that fall apart as movies. Vogt-Roberts gives his entire cast room to shine, and Ross Riege's photography is lush and impressive. Erin Moriarty plays a girl who Joe has pined over for a while, and she adds some impressive shading to what is a fairly straightforward role as written. It's a talented young cast all the way around.
Special mention must be made of an appearance by Kumail Nanjiani, who shows up for one memorable scene with Offerman. He makes the same sort of limited appearance in "Hell Baby," and as I said in that review, there's a long sight gag involving him in that film that made me laugh so hard I actually cried. Nanjiani is one of the hosts of the gaming podcast "The Indoor Kids," and a constant presence in LA's comedy scene, and I would suspect that it won't take many more appearances like the ones he made in these films for him to end up with much more screen time.
I'm glad to see CBS Films picked up "Toy's House." It feels like the sort of movie that could easily ride some good word-of-mouth. It's well-observed, it's moving without ever undercutting its own comic voice, and it is fresh. I've seen people invoking the names of other movies about groups of friends at a certain age, but I think "Toy's House" does its own thing. Like the lazy summer the boys spend in that hidden house, "Toy's House" doesn't really follow anyone else's path. It's an original, and a real gem.
"Toy's House" will hopefully hit theaters near you sometime later this year.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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