No one says “teamwork makes the dream work” in “Hero Mode,” but that maxim’s corny sentiment nonetheless aptly applies to A.J. Tesler’s video game-themed teen comedy, which follows a formula that dates back to at least the era of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. A lively saga about a young coding wizard who’s charged with saving his family’s gaming business, this celebration of old- and new-school creativity doesn’t break novel ground in any respect. Fortunately, though, its good humor, spry pacing and likable performances should appeal to its pre-high-school target audience when it debuts in theaters on June 4 and on VOD on June 11.
After getting himself suspended from school for hacking the college board’s database — a crime that’s hardly condemnable, since he did it to selflessly nab the student body new computers — Troy (Chris Carpenter) gets a shot at working for multiple sclerosis-stricken mom Kate’s (Mira Sorvino) Playfield Games, a company she founded with her late husband (Bret Harrison). It’s an ideal gig for wunderkind Troy, although it turns sour rather quickly, since Playfield Games is on the verge of collapse, forcing mom to agree to sell to corporate-behemoth rival Xodus Games if her staff can’t come up with a hit title to premiere at the upcoming Pixelcon convention. That’s a tall task, given that such success hinges on lead designer Jimmy’s (Sean Astin) jackhammer-ing game “Jack House,” which Troy quickly proves is a buggy disaster.
Despite having already sabotaged their shot at nabbing one investor, as well as getting booted out of school, Troy is handed the keys to the Playfield Games kingdom by Kate, thus sowing discord between him and the rest of the staff, which includes technical lead Laura (Mary Lynn Rajskub), CFO Lyndon (Monte Markham) and story editor Marie (Kimia Behpoornia). Luckily for the boy genius, the film contrives to provide him with aid in the form of livestreaming-crazy best friend Nick (Philip Solomon) and new-girl-in-town — and aspiring singer — Paige (Indiana Massara). Both of these cohorts are as archetypal as they come, as are the basic race-against-the-clock, little-engine-that-could dramatic mechanisms at work in Jeff Carpenter’s script, which goes through its motions with a fleetness that makes up for its predictable familiarity.
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“Hero Mode” is populated by cool, talented teens and mortifying adults with an embarrassing habit of trying to be hip, such that Kate wears a Nirvana t-shirt and quotes MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit,” and Laura decries Troy’s mistakes as “very, very not lit, fam!” Those jokes will likely make anyone over the age of 10 groan, but on the plus side, Astin, Rajskub and Sorvino’s cheerfulness keeps the proceedings lighthearted and amiable. Carpenter isn’t quite as charismatic as his more illustrious co-stars, but he and Massara both handle their lead duties proficiently, even during a late musical number that finds the latter performing a grating original number that would have been right at home on ’90s alt-rock radio.
Tesler and cinematographer Jonathan Hall douse their action in vibrant colors while zooming into and out of digital screens, and they do their best to make coding dynamic via sequences in which their camera rotates around a computer-bound Troy surrounded by virtual landscapes and figures. Occasional visual flourishes aside, “Hero Mode” is as aesthetically straightforward as its plot is simplistic, right up to a finale that makes the triumphant value of collaboration and togetherness (and, by extension, family) both verbally and narratively obvious. Still, its cheesy earnestness goes down relatively smoothly, and with a shout-out to Nintendo maestro Shigeru Miyamoto and an offhand reference to “Super Mario Bros.,” it demonstrates that it knows its gaming stuff.