THE BOLDEST TEXAS-SET MOVIE of 2007 begins on the first day of school, when all the cool kids take off for a party hosted by blond-haired jock Dylan (Adam Powell). The boys swill booze and smoke pot. The girls strut around in barely there bikinis. We watch Dylan try to seduce the elusive beauty Mandy Lane (Amber Heard), whispering filthy nothings into her ear. We watch Mandy give him the brush-off, with a coldly turned shoulder that only entices him more. The director, Jonathan Levine, films all of this with a sensuousness that borders on the lascivious: The images are slowed down; the lighting is artfully washed out. Even the melancholy indie rock music on the sound track suggests a kind of Abercrombie-inspired daydream from which we’d never want to wake.
And then, well, so much for that daydream: In the very next scene, Mandy’s jealous friend Emmet (Michael Welch) goads Dylan into leaping from the roof of the house into the swimming pool in order to impress Mandy. At which point Dylan smashes his head against the rim of the pool and lands in the water dead, blood spilling everywhere.
Insistently creepy, unabashedly eroticized, and wickedly funny, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a horror movie that owes as much to Larry Clark’s provocative essays on adolescent sexuality, like Kids and Ken Park, as it does to old-school slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and When a Stranger Calls. The story is a grab bag of scary movie tropes, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to I Know What You Did Last Summer. But Levine shows us a group of young people we’ve never quite seen before in the movies, teenagers for whom sex is the only currency that matters. And he uses the familiar genre conventions as a springboard to explore the complexities of our MySpace/YouTube/reality-TV culture, where the line between the exploiter and the exploited just keeps getting blurred. The only thing Mandy Lane needs now is for people to take it seriously, and for the Weinstein Company—which has been sitting on the film since acquiring it at September’s Toronto Film Festival—to give it a proper release (see “Delayed Gratification”). Like Chainsaw, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, this is the sort of tiny, whip-smart cult movie that could have a long-lasting cultural impact.
Shot in and around Austin in the fall of 2005, Mandy Lane doesn’t take long to summarize: Nine months after the pool party tragedy, a boy named Red (Aaron Himelstein) invites a group of friends, including Mandy, to his family’s Texas ranch house for the weekend. Once there, after a round of martinis and a half-naked dip in the swimming hole, they begin falling prey to a psycho killer who seems to want Mandy all to himself. But thirty-year-old Levine knows his horror film history, especially the importance of creating a detailed, unnerving sense of place: He brings this sprawling Texas ranch—where, once the sun goes down, nothing can be seen for miles—completely to life.
Much more important, he brings these teenagers to life, through raw and frank dialogue and with a camera that refuses to keep its proper distance; he makes us acutely conscious of them as sexual creatures far beyond their years. The conversations here are all about penis size and pert nipples and who’s bedded whom. The girls, perhaps against expectations, are predatory and forthright, but the boys are no slouches in the emotional manipulation department either. It’s all very clever and even quaint: Levine is updating that oldest of slasher traditions—namely, that premarital sex will lead directly to death—to an era where premarital sex is the least of teenagers’ peccadilloes. And it’s all of a piece with those distressing newspaper reports about supposed “rainbow parties” (a group of pubescent girls invite a boy over and then take turns performing oral sex on him) and with recent books like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked, about how young people’s mania for “hookups” has destabilized dating in the twenty-first century.
But Mandy Lane also pushes the provocations much further, into dicey and often uncomfortable territory. In scene after scene, Levine photographs the performers with languid affection, lingering on every inch of exposed flesh. The naturalistic, mostly handheld camera allows the audience to feel as if it is part of the celebration. The screenplay (by Jacob Forman) even introduces an adult character—a ranch hand played by Anson Mount whom the girls can’t stop lusting over—to underline the jailbait-y subtext. As with Larry Clark’s films, the cumulative effect is both entrancing and a little icky: We’re given an anthropological window into modern teenagers’ lives, but the longer we stare through that window, the more complicit we become in the exploitation of these young people. Levine turns us on without ever letting us forget that we have no right to be turned on.
Perhaps it goes without saying that a movie this incendiary isn’t entirely coherent about what it’s trying to say. I suspect that many people won’t get the joke—or they’ll be too appalled to realize that there’s a joke to be gotten. All the more reason for the film to be released and seen and debated. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that the Weinstein Company is trying to bury the picture. But it’s also unlikely that anyone there realizes what an original work this is. Yes, it’s a slasher flick. But All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a slasher flick that might just provide the missing link between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Paris Hilton sex tape, a cultural artifact that tells us more about our teenagers (and ourselves) than we probably want to know.
So why the wait for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to reach theaters—and when might we actually get to see it? Part of the problem is that the Weinstein Company, formed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 2005, still seems to be finding its organizational footing: In December alone, it haphazardly released half a dozen films, including the Renée Zellweger drama Miss Potter and Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, all of which quickly disappeared into oblivion. And then there’s Harvey’s long, controversial history, as co-chair of Miramax, of going on film festival shopping sprees—and allowing his acquisitions to collect dust on the studio’s shelves for years. Representatives of the Weinstein Company anticipate that Mandy Lane will be in theaters before year’s end. For his part, director Jonathan Levine—who’s hoping for an October release—remains sanguine that his movie won’t end up in Weinstein purgatory. “I won’t lie, you hear stories like that,” he says. “But they really seem to be behind it.”