Shot in the mall-ridden heart of suburban Long Island where writer-director Mark Schiffer grew up, “Strong Island Boys” is a disturbingly true-to-life snapshot of a group of violent, sex-starved teens obsessed with pumping iron, popping steroids and getting their rocks off. Schiffer freshens up the well-worn recipe with a succession of genuinely hilarious scenes and a street-smart sense of realism. This entertaining pic, which has a cripplingly weak ending, will need a serious dose of steroids to power its way into the theatrical marketplace; its commercial fate may be hampered by a perception that it is too populist for the arthouse crowd and too indie (and low-budget) for the mainstream. At the very least, it marks 24-year-old former Goldman Sachs investment banker Schiffer as a ‘burbs auteur to keep an eye on.
Yarn was inspired by a horrific episode in Schiffer’s life, when he was viciously beaten in a random attack while visiting his family on Long Island during spring break from Yale. Schiffer’s alter ego in the film is Ari (Tommy Michaels), a somewhat aloof junior-high student who prefers wrestling and lifting weights to hanging out with his friends. His pals, the Strong Island Boys, are trash-talking, beer-guzzling delinquents who delight in tormenting other kids, harassing the female students and pulling off juvenile stunts like stealing fire extinguishers.
One day at the local park, Ari and his younger friend Jeremy (Brett Tabisel) are brutally attacked by a group of older kids wearing ski masks; Ari’s gang vows revenge even though the assailants are clearly much bigger and stronger than them. So they start ingesting steroids at a rapid rate, working out like fiends and desperately combing the area for the black van that carried the bad guys.
At the same time, Tara (Selma Blair) is gradually falling for the bruised Ari, but he is too hung up on building his biceps to pay much attention to his sultry suitor. Frustrated, she ends up having sex with Ari’s friend Jason (Tom Lock), which, naturally enough, causes major problems among the three of them.
Schiffer does a good job of capturing the complicated, stratified world of mall-rat teenagers, cranking out a good number of laugh-inducing moments built around the usual adolescent dilemmas; the comic sparks help raise the pic a couple of notches above the generic teen-angst yarn. The finale, however, lacks the requisite dramatic punch to tie together the loose threads.
Young thesps all fare quite well, most notably Michaels, who manages to be moody but not mopey as Ari, and Blair, who creates no small amount of bigscreen heat with her rather thinly written role. Lenser Dick Fisher has shot the pic in down-to-earth, almost docu style, doing his best to give an up-close portrait of a typical suburban landscape.