Cinema: a medium that helps to bring people together with their shared love of stories. And whilst opinions on film can often divide, with personal taste often treated like objective fact, and arguments on canon or rules leading to fights, this is just because this is a medium that people care passionately about. People fall in love with films; they watch their favourites over and over again until they can recite them word for word; they’ll try to share them with the people that they care about, and they can even become inspired by film. I think most people have that one movie that they can trace this love back to, a single film that they can say ‘yes, that’s where it all began’, and that’s what 5-25-77 is all about.
There are probably some reading this who’ve already recognised that date, who are able to track their love of film back to the movie that was released on that particular date. But this story isn’t about that film: at least not entirely. 5-27-77 tells the story of Patrick Read Johnson, a kid who goes to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey when he’s eight years old, and who comes away knowing that he needs to make movies. It creates a passion in him that would go on to eventually spawn a career in Hollywood that would lead Johnson to work on films such as Baby’s Day Out, Dennis the Menace, and to eventually create Dragonheart.
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In the film, we open with the young Johnson and his family and the years they spend with him as he takes things from around the house to make his special effects movies. He steals his sister’s bike to turn the wheels into a space station, grabs the barbecue from his dad, makes masks in the kitchen oven, and even paints the horse to look like a zebra. He does all of this, in part, to deal with the mounting tension between his parents, and to deal with their divorce. Once through the opening segment we join up with a teenage Patrick, now played by John Francis Daley (the bulk of the movie having been shot between 2004 and 2006, so Daley looking young enough) as he continues with his movie making obsession.
His family have become used to his hobby, they don’t really care that the house is filled with half-created props, that the pool is filled with fake blood and a rubber shark, or that he’s spending every penny on film. His family either put up with his obsession, knowing that speaking out won’t change him, or support him in his passions. Despite working on his films, with the help of his best friend Bill (Steve Coulter), Patrick never finishes a project, with his sequel to Planet of the Apes still being worked on several years after starting. He has the passion, but no real goal in mind other than wanting to make films.
When he meets Linda (Emmi Chen) Patrick begins to find love, but not even romance can compete with his true love. Travelling up to LA to meet some special effects masters, Patrick finds himself on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he gets to meet Spielberg, and see how the film’s effects are made. But it’s one film he visits that really sets a fire under him, one movie that he gets to see an early cut of that cements his love of movie making: Star Wars.
5-25-77 is, much like the films that Patrick Read Johnson made in his youth, a passion project. It just happens to be a passion project about passion projects. Started almost twenty years ago, 5-25-77 was filmed long enough ago that it’s almost jarring to see some of the actors in the film looking younger here than things that they’ve done in the last few years. Much of the film’s production went to addition shots and the special effects; and the special effects are one of the highlights of the film.
There are moments where old-style film making has been lovingly recreated on screen in ways that just wouldn’t be done outside of a kid in their back yard making their own film. Model shots, forced perspective shots, and props made out of household goods fill the film. But, it’s not just when Patrick is making his movies that we get these moments. There are a number of shots throughout the movie that it takes you a second to realise are models; things like cars driving from one place to another. These are shots that could easily be done normally, but they’re made in this way to give the whole film this almost unreal quality, and to act as a celebration of the art form.
Patrick’s story presented here is an interesting one, and one that feels a bit too weird and embarrassing at times to be too embellished. Patrick screws up, he makes mistakes, and he’s ultimately a very flawed person. The film could have sugar-coated things, it could have made Patrick the young genius held down by the people around him who are unable to see his vision and abilities. But it’s not that. Patrick is a normal guy, a weird guy yeah, but just a guy. This approach is kind of refreshing, especially compared to Spielberg’s own semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans, which is a bit too polished, romantic, and sanitised to feel really true to reality in the way that 5-25-77 does.
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5-25-77 is as much a story about an awkward teen trying to find a place in the world and learning to take the scary steps needed to chase his dreams as much as it is about film making. The two work well together, however, and some of the more interesting moments of the film are the ones where reality and film seem to blend together in fun ways. If you were ever one of those kids (or adults) who looked around the house at the stuff lying around, imagining how you could transform it into something fantastical with some glue, some paint, and a cool idea then 5-25-77 and Patrick’s journey will definitely appeal to you.
5-25-77 is out now on Digital release.