Directed by Josh Schwartz
By the time tween stars from Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel build up their brands big enough to star in feature films, they're usually starting to age out of the demographic that made them stars. The result, then, is often movies about teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, made for tweens on the cusp of not watching Nickelodeon anymore. At its worst, this takes the shape of High School Musical: neutered, insipid yearbook fantasies. At its surprisingly-not-that-terrible best, it turns into Fun Size, a vehicle for whom I would call This Victoria Justice Person, were I somebody's father trying desperately not to notice what an attractive young woman the star of something called Victorious that airs on Nickelodeon has turned into.
Nickelodeon also flies its banner over Fun Size, but the movie, at least superficially, resembles an actual teen comedy; director Josh Schwartz has experience with a different sort of glossy teenage fantasy as the erstwhile wunderkind behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl. However, his experience was as a writer, not a director, and it shows here. Fun Size has an easy-enough premise: it's Adventures in Babysitting on Halloween with the mildest dash of Superbad, as good girl Wren and her less good inexplicable best friend April (Jane Levy) get excited about an invitation to a Halloween party hosted by Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonell, in-joking his resemblance to a young Johnny Depp by dressing up as Captain Jack Sparrow), only to get stuck taking Wren's silent but troublemaking little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating in suburban Cleveland.
For a director who cut his teeth on dialogue-heavy television, Schwartz has little idea how to shoot characters saying funny lines to each other. A simple early scene, designed to establish the relationship between Wren and April and introduce their nerdy classmates Roosevelt (Thomas Mann, sort of a lil' Justin Long in appearance, if not wisecrackery) and Peng (Osiric Chau), has such hatcheted editing that it throws everyone's timing way, way off, becoming a jumble of reaction shots, pauses, and bungled jokes (sometimes in that order).
Even as the movie improves, or at least levels out, none of the comic set pieces live up to their potential: elements that should be funny (candy-obsessed kids, Incredible Hulk costumes, debate-team besties) knock together without much spark; even the funnier sight gags feel muffled. Yet given its technical roughness—at 86 minutes, it feels conspicuously hacked down—Fun Size is surprisingly endearing. Albert's AWOL bond with a lonely twentysomething supposedly called Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch) could be creepy, but Middleditch has an easy, positive-minded charm even when deciding, at the behest of some mischief-making kids, that Halloween is a holiday for revenge.
Over on the teenager side, the comedy doesn't flow as easily: Levy's April spends too much time squeaking through the kind of social-strata analysis that screenwriters seem to love at least as much as real-life mean girls, if not way more, obsessing over her unexpected invitation to a party so exclusive only several hundred other high schoolers are invited. Usually this sort of character exists to make the female lead look even more like America's Sweetheart by comparison, and while any real reason for April and Wren to like each other got the heave-ho at either the screenplay or editing stage, Justice manages to avoid looking like a bland everygirl. That's not to say she's fully realized. Rather than a 12-year-old girl's fantasy of herself as a princess in waiting, Justice seems to be playing a teenage boy's fantasy, albeit a chaste one: a friendly, nerdy-bordering-on-dorky high-schooler who looks like a 22-year-old coed. No wonder Roosevelt moons over her; I just wish their sweet-natured relationship had a bit more romantic pep.
Then again, maybe Wren doesn't feel up to bouncy romantic comedy standards; she's also mourning her recently deceased father—by wearing his old Def Jam Records jacket and applying to NYU, his alma mater. When I saw the Beastie Boys poster on her wall, I wondered: wait, is her dad Rick Rubin? And did he fake his death to get out of Cleveland? Like a lot of Fun Size's subplots, explanations come through a combination of exposition and pointless withholding, like Schwartz and company aren't sure how semi-grown-up movies handle this sort of thing. But the movie's intersecting stories of varying success (I haven't even described Chelsea Handler's cursory side story as Wren's youth-seeking mom) produce a cute manginess—an awkward adolescent of a comedy.
Opens October 26