(1976) Written and directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: Dan McCann, A. Michael Baldwin, Jeff Roth, Ralph Richmond and Reggie Bannister; Available on DVD (Out of print)
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally appeared in June 2011.
“Sure, there would be a neighborhood bully and a love interest for Kenny, but my true goal was to convey what everyday life was like for a normal boy of twelve as he was growing up. For kids, adults and their actions are simply incomprehensible. I wanted to show that.” – Don Coscarelli (from True Indie, by Don Coscarelli)
Being a kid has never been easy, with every generation staking claim to having the most arduous (and, alternatively, the greatest) experience growing up. As a Gen-Xer, my formative years were distributed between the ‘70s and ‘80s so I declare bragging rights for both decades. Although the kids in Kenny & Co., circa 1976, were a few years older than me, the scenes and dialogue consistently struck a chord with my own recollections of that peculiar and sporadically tumultuous time. If you ever wondered what being a kid in‘70s-era Southern California was like, this is probably as close as you’re going to get, short of a documentary from the period or a time machine.
Writer/director Don Coscarelli was only 21 when he directed his second movie (preceded by Jim, the World’s Greatest). Filmed in Long Beach, California, around the same neighborhood where he grew up, Kenny & Co. was his (sort of) tribute to The 400 Blows (although I’d wager Truffaut never watched Kenny & Co.). Coscarelli and associate producer Paul Pepperman incorporated several incidents from their own childhood into the story. Coscarelli’s parents’ house became the base of operations for the film, as well as the location for several scenes. It was a true family affair, with his father Dac producing, his mother Kate (who also starred as Kenny’s mother and cooked for the film crew) handling makeup and production design by, and costumes by his sister Anne. In low budget fashion, many of the crew members had multiple roles (in addition to directing, Coscarelli handled the cinematography and editing).
Kenny (played by Dan McCann, in his first and only role) is an average pre-teen who hangs around with his best friend Doug (Michael Baldwin), and by default, the klutzy, fifth-wheeling kid from across the street, Sherman (Jeff Roth).* His elementary school teacher, Mr. Donovan (played by Coscarelli regular, Reggie Bannister),** is the kind of teacher everyone wishes they had – easygoing, and not too old or jaded to remember what it was like to be that age. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a proper film about childhood if there wasn’t some adversity, which comes in the form of hulking bully Johnny Hoffman (Willy Masterson), who’s roughly the size and shape of a male silverback gorilla.
* Fun Fact #1: When Jeff Roth tripped over the camera during his audition, Coscarelli knew that they had found the perfect Sherman.
** Fun Fact #2: Kenny & Co. featured several performers who would appear in Coscarelli’s better-known follow-up, Phantasm. In addition to Baldwin and Bannister, the cast included Kenneth V. Jones (the first victim of the flying silver ball) as Kenny’s irascible baseball coach Mr. Soupy, Terrie Kalbus (the spooky girl in Mike’s neighborhood), as Kenny’s first crush, and Ralph Richmond (the bartender in Phantasm) as Doug’s prankster father, Big Doug.
While a movie that isn’t driven by plot might be considered a deficit in some circles, it works beautifully for Kenny and Co. Instead, the film is comprised of vignettes, bracketed by Halloween night, and tied together by Kenny’s earnest narration. The result is consistent with the murky waters of our memories, which tend to be episodic in nature, rather than a coherent linear narrative. The performances by the kids (many of whom were not professional actors) are refreshingly natural. McCann (whom Pepperman spotted at a school carnival) is perfect as the easygoing everykid, Kenny, with his sweet but not saccharine demeanor. Roth never fails to amuse as Sherman, with his puppy-dog eyes and naïve charm (he desperately wants to be one of the guys, who consider him more of a mascot than a peer). One of the few professional actors was Michael Baldwin,* standing out from the pack as Kenny’s fearless pal, Doug.
* Fun Fact #3: Baldwin’s father, Gerard, was an animator/director who worked on several shows, including The Bullwinkle Show and The Jetsons.
Despite being a little rough around the edges (or perhaps because of it), Kenny & Co. captures some of the greater truths about being a kid. Sure, there’s some artistic license along the way (most of us probably aren’t lucky enough to witness our childhood bully’s comeuppance), but what Kenny & Co. especially gets right are the little moments – stupid pranks, goofing around, and generally doing things that would give any parent heart palpitations. In one scene, the kids peruse the centerfold in a girly magazine that Sherman pilfered from his dad’s bedroom, leading to a conversation about how babies are made. Sherman’s ridiculously misguided notions about human biology, contrast sharply with Doug’s matter-of-fact answer. In another scene, Kenny and Doug drop their dummy “Otis” in the street,* just to observe the baffled motorists’ reactions. To their dismay, a pair of grown-ups promptly abduct Otis and dump him in their trunk, a cruel reminder that adults aren’t always trustworthy.
* Interesting Fact: In a case of life imitating art, my oldest son copied their prank, fashioning a dummy out of old clothes, and placing it in the middle of a busy parking lot. Thankfully, no one took his “Otis” away.
For a movie that’s predominately a comedy there are some unexpected somber moments, including one of the most heartbreakingly honest depictions of losing a beloved pet that I have seen in any movie. Along with his parents, Kenny accompanies his dog Bob on his final trip to the vet. As explained by his father, they’re doing the right thing to ease their dog’s suffering, but nothing about it seems right or fair. When they exit the exam room, the camera pans across the photos on the wall, and the other pets in the waiting room (presumably for routine check-ups). It's a mixture of emotions – grieving over the loss, and envying the owners whose pets are still alive. For many kids, it’s their first encounter with death, and a harsh rite of passage. In another scene Kenny asks his father about what happens when you die. Instead of providing some trite, sugarcoated answer, his father responds that he doesn’t know – far from the comforting words his son probably expected. The only false note comes later, when Kenny and Sherman witness a (presumably) fatal auto accident. Compared to the scene with the dog, it seems extraneous, and out of step with the rest of the film. Mercifully, Coscarelli balances these darker moments with silliness,* keeping things from becoming too glum. It also serves as a reminder that Kenny is nothing, if not resilient.
* Fun Fact #4: Coscarelli knew he was onto something, after seeing audiences jump during a scene when a monster appears in a spooky garage. Coscarelli commented that the desire to evoke that same sort of reaction inspired him to make Phantasm.
In his DVD commentary, Coscarelli lamented the fact that 20th Century Fox tried to market the film as a kids’ movie, when he suspected that its true audience would be adults, reminiscing about their childhoods. As it turned out, he was spot-on with his assessment (although I believe kids would find much to relate to in the film). Considering the distributor’s lackluster job promoting Kenny & Co., it’s unsurprising that it fared poorly at the American box office. Oddly enough, the movie became a big hit in Japan (where it was retitled Boys Boys/Kenny and Friends). Despite its brief moment of glory, Kenny & Co., like its star, McCann, faded into obscurity. As far as many Coscarelli fans are concerned, his career started with Phantasm, but Kenny & Co. deserves its own little renaissance. Unlike most of Coscarelli’s other films, which have wound up on just about every home video format, there was only one DVD release of Kenny & Co. (Jim, the World’s Greatest, has yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray). The promising young director would go on to more polished and ambitious projects, but nothing has quite matched the degree of humor and heart found in this sophomore effort. The Anchor Bay DVD is long out of print, with no Blu-ray in sight, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a trip down memory lane worth taking.
Sources for this article: Anchor Bay DVD commentary; True Indie, by Don Coscarelli