In “18 to Party,” a group of young teens on the cusp of proper adolescence meet up outside a youth club. Since they’re the youngest, mere eighth graders, they automatically go to the back of the line and wait for everyone else to be admitted before they’ll find out if they’ve made the cut. There are no adults: all of the parents are attending a town meeting to discuss a mysterious UFO that has been sighted in the skies above the community. This extraterrestrial activity coincides with a series of bizarre deaths amongst the town’s youth

“18 to Party” is not overly concerned with providing backstory to all of this: we get veiled references to events that precede the film and it’s clear this current crisis informs the actions and outlook of our lead characters, but otherwise there’s little detail. This is a film where a mysterious, foreboding presence lingers over the proceedings, but never truly penetrates. Instead, our focus is on the uneasy dynamic that exists within this group of teens.

There are shades of “The Breakfast Club” and “Freaks and Geeks” in their interactions with one another, frequently hostile on the surface but tinged with deep insecurity. These kids were friends once, but school has only just started; a summer away has succeeded in making them all wildly uncomfortable in their own skins, and they’re taking it out on each other. Their conversations are meandering and aimless — they talk about school, friends, family, girls, current events. But all roads lead back to the alien crisis that has provided their town with a convenient distraction from the issue of teen mortality the adults are seemingly trying to dance around.

The cast is filled with young actors who have varying degrees of experience, and their performances range from adequate to very good. The only weakness is a tendency towards pointless repetition in some of the characters’ dialogue. In the absence of nuanced character-building with some of the peripheral figures, they’re put in the position where they just keep repeating themselves over and over again, falling back on the one trait they’ve been given by the writers.

But it’s a testament to the script’s naturalism that all of the actors find something to connect with and bring truth to the material. A particular standout in this regard is James Freedson-Jackson as Lanky, an outcast who committed some infraction after his older brother’s suicide that is frequently referenced by the other kids but the exact nature of which is left purposefully unexplored. His performance is big, a wounded child going over the top to convince everyone of how OK he is, but it’s compelling and whenever he pops into the narrative, all eyes are on him.

There’s little that actually happens in “18 to Party.” In fact, there’s a distinctly “Waiting for Godot” flavor to its particular brand of inaction. The characters are frozen in place outside the club, stuck in a sort of limbo between childhood and adulthood. There’s a spectre of darkness hanging over them and their entire town, reflecting their unease with a changing world they don’t fully understand. And so they wait.

“18 to Party” is perhaps not a film poised to set the world on fire. But it succeeds in portraying a quiet empathy for its characters, and a keen understanding of their experiences as partially grown adults that should endear itself to audiences who have a soft spot for the coming-of-age genre. And there’s a special connection to be developed with a film as tightly-written and compact as this, with all the action taking place in one distinct location and the crackling immediacy of a stage performance.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: Jeff Roda
Written by: Jeff Roda
Cast: Taylor Richardson, Sam McCarthy, Tanner Flood, James Freedson-Jackson

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