THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW. Directed by Christopher Cain; written by Emilio Estevez; produced by Gary R. Lindberg and John M. Ondov for Paramount. Starring Emilio Estevez and Craig Sheffer. Rated R (a little vulgar language and violence).
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"Then" is childhood, and "now" is late adolescence. Growing from one to the other is a rough passage, no doubt about it. A little like watching this earnest, but boring and pretentious movie.
In the opening scene, Mark (Estevez) and Bryon (Sheffer) miss the bus to school. So Mark just hotwires a new car in a handy lot, and off they go. During the wild joyride to school, Bryon's uncertainty and Mark's childish glee not only set up the characters and their relationship. Most of the rest of the movie can be easily predicted from this first sequence as well.
Bryon is obviously the "good kid" even though he occasionally gets into fights and has a pierced ear. He's going to turn out OK.
Mark's days, however, are numbered. How long can someone get away with all this pilfering, auto theft, reckless driving and, we learn later, drug dealing? No matter how charming the perpetrator, eventually he's going to end up doing time, or worse.
The predictability of That Was Then, however, isn't its biggest failure. That honor might go to the uncertainty of the movie's focus. Bryon is obviously supposed to be the character most of the audience either can, or should, want to identify with. But Mark is much more interesting.
Part of his appeal stems from the fact that, at least until they start getting caught, "bad boys" have more fun. But Mark commands our attention largely because of Estevez, who is both a fine actor and a charismatic screen presence. Sheffer, on the other hand, while capable, isn't really in Estevez's class in either category. This makes it hard to root for Bryon, the guy who is obviously the movie's winner.
Perhaps even more disconcerting, though is That Was Then' s visual and narrative style. There are just too many close-ups and pregnant pauses. Judiciously used, each of these techniques can be effective. But That Was Then takes both to extremes. And the result is a tortuously slow pace.
Another minor problem concerns Mark and Bryon's actual relationship. Readers of the S.E. Hinton novel upon which the movie is based won't have difficulty with this. But the rest of us might be a bit confused. The boys seem to be brothers at first, but then we discover that they have different last names. Finally it turns out that they're just close friends. Mark was taken in when his parents died, several years before. Had the rest of the movie been more interesting this point wouldn't be noticeable. But it's an irritation.
In short, Estevez is worth watching, as always, but he has been in much better movies (notably Repo Man). As the screenwriter here, he tries too hard with the book's serious messages about growing up. I'll look forward to his next effort, with Hinton hopefully out of his system.
November 27, 1985