(1985) Directed by Michael Rubbo; Written by Michael Rubbo, Vojtech Jasný, Andrée Pelletier and Louise Pelletier; Starring: Mathew Mackay, Siluck Saysanasy, Alison Darcy, Michael Hogan and Michel Maillot; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“I wanted to say something: Life is difficult, but it’s worthwhile.” – Rock Demers, producer (from featurette, “Human Beings Are the Same All Over”)
I’m here to review movies and eat Coffee Crisp…And I’m all out of Coffee Crisp. The O Canada Blogathon (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2020/01/15/announcing-the-o-canada-blogathon-2020/) has descended upon us once again! As always, a big thanks to co-hosts Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting this spectacular three-day blogging extravaganza, showcasing Canada’s many contributions to cinema. I’m back to review a film that allegedly traumatized many unsuspecting young Canadians in the ‘80s, The Peanut Butter Solution. South of the border, it was relatively obscure, although it enjoyed a brief run on HBO and VHS. Thanks to the folks at Severin Films, the film is now available on Blu-ray for a whole new generation to experience. I’m about to explore what all the fuss was about, so hold on tight, because this ride is about to get a little wild…
Childhood is a scary time – a reality the filmmakers behind The Peanut Butter Solution* (second in a series of family friendly movies, called “Tales for All,” from Montreal-based producer Rock Demers) understand. The basic story for the movie originated as a tale director Michael Rubbo told to his son at bedtime. In addition to Rubbo, three other individuals share screenwriting credit, lending the film an “everything but the kitchen sink” sort of feel. There’s a disconcerting, palpable feeling that anything can (and often does) happen. The result bears comparison to the works of Roald Dahl, focusing on the kids’ perspective. The world is a frightening place, run by capricious, overbearing adults, whose rules are often arbitrary and cruel. In addition to Dahl, The Peanut Butter Solution’s plot, involving a crazed teacher who kidnaps kids for his sinister project, recalls Dr. Seuss’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).
* Fun Fact #1: The film’s original title was the less interesting, somewhat misleading Michael’s Fright.
Michael (Mathew Mackay) is an ordinary suburban kid who becomes the victim of extraordinary circumstances. While exploring the neighborhood with his best buddy, Conrad (Siluck Saysanasy), they stop at an old, abandoned house. Michael climbs inside the house, where he suffers the scare of his life. Much to his distress,*/** the effects of the fright are so intense, all his hair falls out. But help arrives from an unlikely source to save him from premature baldness. Mary and Tom (Helen Hughes and Griffith Brewer), the ghosts of two deceased homeless people, appear in his kitchen. After raiding Michael’s pantry, Mary reveals she has a special formula (don’t ask me where she got it) for restoring his hair,*** which includes, among other ingredients, dead flies, a rotten egg and (you guessed it) peanut butter. Unfortunately, he gets the proportions wrong, adding too much of the legume paste to the concoction, causing his hair to grow uncontrollably. Michael’s hirsute condition makes him persona non grata at his school.
* Fun Fact #2: According to star Mathew Mackay, he was chosen by the director because he could cry on cue.
** Fun Fact #3: Mackay noted that his head was shaved every day for the role. In scenes where his character has hair, he wore a wig.
*** I’m not sure if this movie boosted sales for Skippy Peanut Butter (which endorsed the film), but the film attests that the company’s food product is a key component for hair restoration, so there’s that. Somehow though, I don’t think this assertion would pass muster with the FDA.
Michel Maillot is memorable as the mercurial elementary art teacher Sergio “The Signor.” After the school principal exposes him as a fraud (Hmm… You’d think she would have checked references first before hiring him?), he leaves in disgrace. He proves to be nothing, if not resilient, bouncing back from this career setback by abducting Michael and running a sweat shop staffed by kidnapped schoolchildren. Under his watchful eye, they’re forced to assemble paintbrushes from Michael’s hair (In one scene, one of the captured kids comments that they have to make 500 paintbrushes per day, or they won’t get fed). In a later scene, which I can only chalk off to a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, they’re entranced and amused by the Signor, as he creates a magical painting with one of the brushes. In an effort to establish that even the Signor has redeemable qualities, the movie establishes how he has a soft spot for his canine companion, Patches (played by “Jim”).
The Peanut Butter Solution takes a rather dubious view of adults, so it’s probably no surprise that it’s up to the kids to save the day. Michael’s art teacher discourages creativity, encouraging his students to stick to his stilted vision. His math teacher denies empiricism in the face of contradictory evidence, refusing to accept that Michaels hair is growing at an accelerated rate (“Human hair grows only half an inch a month. No more.”). Michael’s father Billy (played by Michael Hogan, who looks a bit like David Lynch regular Jack Nance), seems more childlike than the other adults, preferring to spend his days painting rather than running a household. We learn that Michael’s mom is overseas, which leaves his older sister Suzie (Alison Darcy) as a surrogate mother of sorts. Arguably, Suzie and Michael’s friend Conrad are the true heroes of the story, as they team up to find Michael and his missing classmates.
Separated at birth? (Top: Michael Hogan; Bottom: Jack Nance)
The film has some important things to say, without beating audiences over the head with a MESSAGE. One of the most prevalent lessons is learning to face your fears. After suffering a series of ordeals (including public humiliation when kids laugh at his bald head), Michael decides to re-visit the house where he experienced the fright. Another key theme is the film’s anti-authoritarian bias, illustrated by Conrad standing up to the art teacher. When the Signor attempts to tear up his painting, Conrad tells him he’ll never come to his class again. It might seem like an idle threat on the surface, but it takes chutzpah for him to stand up to his teacher, rather than fall in line with his fellow students. On a slight tangent, The Peanut Butter Solution takes a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward homeless individuals. Early in the film, Michael gives a homeless man money. Later, when he’s visited by the ghosts of two homeless people, we learn that they’re invisible to everyone except him. The larger message is that Michael recognizes they exist, something many choose to ignore.
Is The Peanut Butter Solution* as weird as its reputation suggests? Yes and no. Not everything makes sense (in one scene, the dialogue appears to be played backwards), and I’m good with that. Sure, it’s a little scary and unsettling in places, but isn’t that the same with childhood? We’re expected to stick by the rules, even when many adults don’t adhere to those same rules. “Tales for All” is an appropriate category for this movie, which has something for everyone: eccentric characters and weird situations, told with relatable themes. Ultimately, amidst the odd choices and chaotic tone, there’s a positive takeaway: We’re all in this together, and it’s going to work out in the end.
* Fun Fact #4: Because the only things that are absolute in life are death, taxes and remakes, producer Demers noted in the Blu-ray commentary that a Hollywood-based remake is in the works. You’ve been warned.