A protracted angstfest, “The Toy Soldiers” follows a group of very mature-looking teens during one fateful night that provides plenty of opportunity for histrionics. With its stilted monologues and crudely melodramatic air of “shocking realism,” Erik Peter Carlson’s sophomore feature feels like a series of interlocking fringe-theater one-acts that have only grown more artificial onscreen. Released on 14 U.S. screens, with VOD/DVD launches planned for February, the pic will have a tough time finding much commercial traction in any format.
Mary Harris (frequently over-the-top Constance Brenneman) is a divorced high-school music teacher who copes by getting drunk, popping pills and sleeping with her students. But the primary focus is on her sons and their friends. Jack (Samuel Nolan) dominates the first of five interlocking narrative panels a la “Pulp Fiction” (in structure, that is, definitely not in tone or skill) as he worries over coming out as gay. Everyone already seems to know anyway — everyone, that is, save his none-too-bright girlfriend, Cricket (Megan Hensley), who’s sure to take the news as hysterically as possible.
Jack’s older brother, Elliot (Chandler Rylko), basically a good guy despite some loutish best buds, crushes on snippy Ms. Pac-Man-addicted Angel (Najarra Townsend). After a bowling date that culminates in semi-public sex, she confesses to a revenge killing in which she bludgeoned a man with her roller skates in front of his unconcerned family — a dramatic highlight (““Even his German Shepherds didn’t care that I was making mashed potatoes of his face”), and one of several moments here poised on the brink of presumably unintentional camp hilarity.
In separate segments, slow-witted “Steve the Peeve” (Nick Frangione) and Tourrette’s-afflicted Harold Beaver (Izzy Pollak) naively court “badass bimbette” Layla (Jeanette May), a roller-rink employee who turns penny-ante tricks on the side. With varying success, they each try to protect her from a trio of jeering jocks. A gang rape and a car accident awkwardly bring the pic’s mix of limp sensationalism and thick pathos to a head, reuniting the broken Harris clan as runaway Dad (an awkward Kevin Pinassi) shows up in a penitent mood.
The actors cast as teens look about 10 years too old for their parts, but then “The Toy Soldiers” is a little off on many odd, careless fronts. It’s ostensibly set during the ’80s, but little attempt is made to evoke the era (at one odd point, a broadcast announcement of John Lennon’s death is arbitrarily inserted into a scene notably lacking a visible radio or TV), and some of the dialogue is flatly anachronistic in that regard. It’s frequently mentioned that Mary is a frustrated would-be professional musician and that Elliot has a band, yet neither ever sings or plucks a note. Nothing comes of a minor character introduced as a seeming pederastic threat to the little-seen youngest Harris (Amelia Haberman).
Much of the action is set in or around the imminently shuttering local roller rink, yet the few characters who skate seem inexperienced on wheels, to say the least. Picked-on Steve and Harold feel like one character unnecessarily split into two, serving the same function as pure-hearted defenders of Layla’s sullied honor. A closing series of onscreen-text epilogues solemnly informs us what eventually happened to the major characters, as if they were real people, instead unintentionally underlining how crudely contrived they’ve remained after two-and-a-half hours.
Despite evident budgetary limitations — notably in an claustrophobic, underpopulated feel to action that would like to roam the restless small-town night as freely as “American Graffitti” — “The Toy Soldiers” sports a basic competence in assembly that slightly elevates its material. The same can’t be said of the performers, though they try, some achieving a semblance of naturalism, others more inept or hammy.