I was just as surprised as anyone to see the Blumhouse logo pop up before drama film, This is the Night. The brand most known for its indelible imprint on modern horror proves that it can do the coming-of-age dramedy just as skillfully. Writer/director James DeMonaco (creator of the already-iconic Purge franchise) takes the reigns on this compact story detailing a semi-dysfunctional family, their entire town’s obsession with Rocky Balboa, and the incredible journey of self-discovery that all four members of the family must embark upon over the course of a single night.
Set in 1982 Staten Island, This is the Night starts us out on the opening night of Sylvester Stallone’s now-classic sequel, Rocky III. The entire town is uproariously excited for this cinematic event, none moreso than one Italian-American family at the heart of our tale. Tony (Lucius Hoyos), who has bonded with the girl of his dreams, Sophia (Madelyn Cline), in the past over their shared love of Rocky, waits in a ridiculously long line, snagging the last six tickets for the 4:30pm showing. Tony longs for a way to draw Sophia’s attention from Santo (Steve Lipman), his own personal bully and (of course) Sophia’s current boyfriend. Calling Rocky Balboa “a pussy” in the midst of a crowded movie theater may spell certain doom for Tony and his two pals (River Alexander and Chase Vacnin). Vincent (Frank Grillo), Tony’s father, prepares for Sophia’s Sweet 16 at his struggling restaurant while going head-to-head against her father, Frank (Bobby Cannavale), his obnoxious former high school rival. In the third and final storyline of the film, the matriarch (Naomi Watts) and eldest son, Christian (Jonah Hauer-King), must come to terms with Christian’s sexuality and the shaky waters of her marriage.
First things first: This is the Night is impeccably cast, sharply scripted, and has a propulsive throwback soundtrack full of hits (KISS’s “Lick It Up” remains a personal favorite). I must admit to being a big fan of the coming-of-age drama, and this film hit all the right targets of the best in the subgenre. A young love story, LGBT themes, passion for films at large, and a literal fight smackdown are just a smattering of the little delights in store within. Each of the ensemble gets their time in the limelight, which is refreshing considering the breadth of this stacked cast. Though the depiction of gay culture is occasionally a little clumsy, it is also here that contained the largest emotional resonance for me. Naomi Watts screaming “yes!” acts as vital climactic thrust, and I was loving every second. Her relationship with Christian was one of my favorite aspects. In the primary “coming out” scene, I was reminded of my own mother’s reaction the first time I told her that I was gay. “I just want you to be happy,” Watts insists with a smile. In a movie full of intimate moments, it remains a clear standout. Jonah Hauer-King will be playing Prince Eric in 2023’s live action The Little Mermaid; if nothing else, his performance in This is the Night provides evidence that Disney has selected an actor with real talent. Each central storyline concludes in a satisfying way, culminating in an ending that just fits.
This is the Night (previously titled Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, which is honestly a much better name) emphasizes one thing above all else that truly made me fall in love with it: it captures the intimacy and community of experiencing a film in a packed cinema. Uproarious laughter, actual tears, and fist-pumping moments of triumph become one collective audience journey. While this may seem like a small detail, it becomes central to the themes of family and community that DeMonaco focuses on. I can’t say I’m some gigantic Rocky fan or anything, but honing in on Rocky III’s cultural impact is not as important as the nostalgic feeling of moviegoing itself. It is an escape—life is not a movie, and never will be. One has to live their life to the best of their abilities, and make sure one’s travels into the land of theatrical cinema are an event all their own.
This is the Night premieres at the Angelika Film Center on Friday, September 17th, and will be released digitally on September 21st, 2021.