Loaded with more movie references than I could possibly keep track of and a loving adoration of the medium as a whole, TIFF selection I Like Movies is part coming of age drama, part sizzling dark comedy. I think what will make or break the movie for most people is the lead performance from Isaiah Lehtinen (If There Be Thorns, 2018’s Freaky Friday)—his teenage reject character, Lawrence, is as frustratingly overbearing as he is manic. Unable to pick up on social cues easily, Lawrence acts abrasive and intense from the very first second we see him. Apart from Lawrence himself, I Like Movies has a lot to offer. From the beautiful nostalgia of the brick-and-mortar video stores to the time capsule vibes of a simpler time, writer/director Chandler Levack lovingly depicts a bygone era with specificity and quirky charm.
Movie-obsessed Lawrence and his best friend, Matt (Percy Hynes White, The Gifted, A Christmas Horror Story), have just turned in their first movie for their senior year film class! Depicting their weekly “Rejects Night,” a fancy term for the duo getting together for the tradition of Saturday Night Live, Lawrence describes their project to the class as “a love letter to friendship.” There is just one problem: the assignment was to make a two-minute video essay depicting bias in the media. Completely missing the mark and a lack of basic understanding is a constant for Lawrence, who continues to have issues whether at school or at home. He certainly does like movies, though.
With his heart set on NYU, literally no other alternative exists for Lawrence to pursue his dreams of becoming a filmmaker. As part of this journey, Lawrence will need to make a hell of a lot of money on the side—his mother is just a secretary, so they realistically cannot afford NYU, never mind the fact that Lawrence himself has not yet been accepted at the school anyway. Obsessively turning in his resume over and over again at local store Sequels Video, Lawrence is hopeful that he can get in for his dream job that will help pave the way for future success in the industry itself. Perhaps they can waive an ever-growing late fee for Wild Things, which Matt has borrowed, obsessively jerked off over, and has still failed to return. As for Lawrence, he would rather watch Goodfellas again than jerk off.
For much of the film, Lawrence’s mom is very concerned for his wellbeing, and the two are constantly combative towards one another. At times it seems playful, but at others downright mean. Lawrence is also at odds with Matt, who is dying to bring a cute girl, Lauren, on to be their potential editor on an end of year movie to be shown at the school’s final assembly. Lawrence seems selfish and self-obsessed, going so far as turning down Matt’s attempts to move away with him to New York. Referring to Matt as a “placeholder friend,” Lawrence mistakes brazen bluntness with honesty. He seems to have no filter whatsoever.
While the story of the movie can boil down to Lawrence coming to terms with past traumas in preparation for an unexpected college journey, the inciting incident involves Lawrence getting that job at Sequels Video. There, he becomes obsessed with his manager Terri (Krista Bridges, Land of the Dead, House at the End of the Street), who takes her job slightly too seriously. Forced to wear a sash that says “ASK ME ABOUT SHREK,” Lawrence is miffed because he thought he was going to be educating people on “real cinema.” Through this job, Lawrence is entitled to ten free rentals per week, but the growing late fee on Wild Things may stand in his way. Lawrence connects with Terri on many different levels; as his friendship with Matt sours, he moves to Terri to fill the gaps.
I Like Movies does carry a content advisory warning for themes of suicide, sexual abuse, and mental distress, which are certainly all presented with a loving, gentle touch that never borders on exploitative. An ensemble cast does their best with the material, and though I’m not sure if I Like Movies ever quite soars due to the crutch of its early 2000s setting, that is also perhaps its biggest strength. Isaiah Lehtinen shines in this role; in many ways, he reminded me of myself. When only movies matter, maybe it is time to expand the horizons of one’s personality. The message in the final scene puts emphasis on finding one’s tribe and one’s sense of self through the power of movies, rather than having that be one’s only defining character trait. Now that is the kind of sequel I would love to see on the shelves of Sequels Video.
I Like Movies screened at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.