Its slim premise involving a couple of 13-year-old boys having fun with a camcorder in the late ’80s, “VHYes” is maybe a little too faithful to their sensibility — being exactly what a kid raised on “Saturday Night Live,” “SCTV,” and maybe cable broadcasts of “Kentucky Fried Movie” would imagine as the coolest home-made movie ever. It’s a freeform jumble of skits spoofing vintage broadcast series, commercials, public access shows, porn, and whatnot, their mildly surreal bent increasing as the short feature goes on.
Duly shot on VHS and digital Betacam, this first feature for Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s son Jack Henry Robbins is an amiable goof deploying cameos by the ’rents as well as some other familiar faces. But it’s the kind of enterprise that will only seem as funny, clever, and “weird” as it means to be if watched while very stoned and/or adolescent. There are scattered laughs on offer, albeit nothing that hasn’t been done much better elsewhere, whether in “Putney Swope” half a century ago, in more recent viral sitcom hallucination “Too Many Cooks,” or in the ongoing clip shows of the Found Footage Festival, which excavates real VHS-era oddities more hilariously strange than anything here. Oscilloscope is opening “VHYes” limited in U.S. theaters on Jan. 17.
Conceived by the director, co-writer Nunzio Randazzo, and Nate Gold, the film starts with wedding and holiday home movies that we soon realize are being obliviously taped over by Ralph (Mason McNulty), whose parents (Jake Head, Christian Drerup) have given him a camcorder for Christmas 1987.
Of course he immediately and obsessively starts filming anything and everything, with or without best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw). But he also uses the device to record shows off television. Thus we see random snippets of children’s program “The Kindly the Cowboy Show,” public access instructional “Painting with Joan” (Kerri Kenney playing the titular hostess), a different amateur cable slot with teen Charlyne Yi presenting musical guests in her basement, clone-themed sitcom “Ten of the Same,” aerobic exercise forum “Blastoff,” informercial and antiques-evaluation shows, et cetera.
Among the better bits are a home-security-system advert that turns into a bloodbath, and a couple severely truncated XXX features (all the sex edited out), with an amusing Cameron Simmons as various brainless studs put to good use by lady scientists and sexy Swedish space aliens. There’s a bit of savvy commentary when a media expert interviewed on a talk show is dismissed as crazy for predicting a future in which people risk accidents and neglect their real lives in pursuit of compulsively filming themselves — i.e. our selfie-riddled present. The movie also arrives at a sort of narrative climax when our young protagonists investigate a “haunted sorority house” abandoned after a fire, suffering some “Blair Witch”-style frights there.
But all this is pretty thin stuff, written with medium-watt inspiration at best and acted by performers variably able to make it seem better than it is. The best thing the film has going for it is editor Avner Shiloah’s scrambled channel-surfing assembly, which seldom sticks with any bit long enough for it to get too stale. Still, “VHYes” feels overextended even at the 66 slim minutes it takes to reach the final credits. The world at present is too over-saturated with pop culture satire (and unwitting self-satire) for this kind of sub-“Funny or Die” material to feel worth the effort, though a good time was surely had by all concerned.