Where would Jonathan Levine be today if the Weinsteins had actually released All the Boys Love Mandy Lane in 2007? Few indie, D.I.Y. slashers have a history that’s quite so storied as this one’s; Levine started work on the project in 2003, completed it and sold it to Bob and Harvey in 2006, and then went on to make a name for himself with The Wackness in 2008 while Mandy Lane languished in obscurity. (And that’s just the short version of events.) If you’re wondering why a play on “kids go to isolated wilderness, kids get dead” exploitation wound up sitting on a shelf for nearly seven years, chalk it up to typical studio flimflam and move on with your life.
In a way, the film’s suspended voyage to your local multiplex has been a blessing for Levine, whose recent efforts – 50/50 and this year’s Warm Bodies – have earned him not-insignificant acclaim as a compassionate filmmaker concerned with human disconnection. Now that All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is commercially available, the cat’s out of the bag and we can see where his career really began, which turns out to be a place of startling mediocrity. Frankly, Levine’s film proves so broadly average on so many different planes, save for the quality of its craft, that it’s hard to imagine why the Weinsteins feared losing money on it in the first place. The kid selling lemonade on your neighborhood street corner could figure out how to sell this thing to mass audiences without skipping a beat.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane kicks off with the sort of stupidity that passes as tragedy in the fluff drama of teenage friction; the titular pretty girl (Amber Heard), who can credit her popularity to the legions of hormonal boys that treat her like a piece of meat, attends a rager that ends with one macho jock idiot leaping off a roof as a display of his love for her before cracking his skull open on paving stones. Smart. Everyone blames Mandy’s outsider friend, Emmet (Michael Welch), and nine months later even she treats him like refuse, spurning his affections as she coolly abandons him for a weekend of partying with the cool crowd at one young buck’s family ranch. (In a film that means to capture how raw emotions can run in high school, this moment does it best.)
You can probably guess where things go from here; the teens aren’t alone on the range, and one by one, they’re picked off by a mysterious interloper whose identity really isn’t all that mysterious. (This very sentence probably gives it away too easily, though in truth that knowledge isn’t kept under wraps for long.) Eventually, Levine reveals that he’s hidden a twist within the tangle of his narrative, but like most of what he does here, it’s a perfunctory move that might have felt less deflating with some uncharacteristic transparency. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane‘s ancestry demands the killer remain an unknowable quantity until the very end, so maybe Levine can’t really be beaten up for playing to tradition.
But it’s his tendencies toward breaking from formula that make the ways he sticks to it so damn frustrating. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane could have been a real winner if Levine’s assurance took over the whole of the production; the film looks great, far better than many of its peers bother to, even if the frequent comparisons other critics have made to the early work of Terrence Malick feel a whole lot like hubris. Days of Heaven this is not. (It’s not even Badlands.) Maybe it’s the rolling and endless Texas countryside that draws these allusions, but at the same time, hemming and hawing over the words of others detracts from All the Boys Love Mandy Lane‘s loveliness.
There’s a substantive critique of the male gaze at work here, too, something that’s part and parcel of exploitative slasher fare but which Levine manipulates afresh. Just setting his story within the horny confines of teendom gives every unnecessary T&A shot a perverse kind of vitality; we’re seeing the world through the eyes of Levine’s numerous male characters, and all that Mandy represents to them is an outlet for desire. To a point, it’s hard to blame them. Mandy, as embodied by Heard (incidentally, we also get to take stock of where her own life has taken her since 2006), is a stunning girl who quite literally stands ahead of the rest of the pack in one of the film’s more heavy-handed visual metaphors. Of course the boys love her.
But they also commodify her, a big no-no that keeps any of them from succeeding in the race for her, uh, hand. Once the cast gets to the ranch, Levine all but discards this idea as the body count starts to pile up before revisiting it in the last act; if the escalating violence plays standardly, then the “stuff” behind it reads clumsily. Sussing out motivations just uncovers lots of awkward tension, not the kind that enhances what’s going on within the film but the kind that leaves an audience scratching their heads. There’s something missing from the climax that justifies the direction it takes, or several somethings, and one extra beat here or there in the early going would have made All the Boys Love Mandy Lane‘s abrupt conclusion feel infinitely more palatable.
There’s a temptation to go easy on the film because of Levine, now a legit talent long after the fiasco of his debut’s arrested release. In truth, it’s not so bad as all of the above suggests, but apart from those errant elements that serve as Levine’s stamp on the material, it’s also not particularly great, either, even as a beginner’s effort. In a just world, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane would have enjoyed a theatrical run in the aughts instead of today, but then again, maybe we’re all better off this way: now we can treat it as a time capsule rather than a movie.