By Mark Saldana 

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Austin’s filmmaking wunderkind, Emily Hagins (My Sucky Teen Romance) has definitely matured as a writer/director and her latest work, a delightful and heartfelt teen comedy is a clear indicator of this maturity.  This year at SXSW Film, not only were Austin filmmakers well represented, so was geek culture and interestingly in some of the Austin productions.  In Hagins feature, her main character, Tony Phillips is quite content and comfortable with whom he is and this lovely take on teenage geekery should warm even the hardest of hearts.

Tony loves celebrating Halloween. All of his life, he has enjoyed making costumes to celebrate the holiday and has no plans of quitting any time soon.  His passion for Halloween seems to upset the people closest to him. His mother wishes he would display more maturity and seriously make plans for his post-high school future.  His friends, Elle (Katie Folger) and Craig (Devin Bonnee) have just about had it with Tony’s juvenile games and activities, as it cramps their style and impedes their abilities to co-mingle with the “cooler” crowds.  When Halloween arrives for the Tony and friends in their senior year of high school, Tony reaches a crossroads in his life. Should he give up something which makes him happy to please his friends, or should he continue doing what pleases him at the expense of possibly losing those closest to him?

Hagins’ film offers a refreshing take on the “Be yourself.” theme. So many teen movies and television shows often “transform” the geeky characters into prettier or more handsome versions and often compromise some of that which makes the characters endearing in the beginning.  Tony Phillips unapologetically celebrates geek life and does so quite realistically.  That is not to say that the Tony character doesn’t have some maturing to do or changes to make in his life, but he never compromises what gives him joy for the sake of conformity.  In fact, some of the other characters have more maturing or development to do in their lives.

Tony Vespe does excellent work as the title character.  He has a natural charisma and talent, as well as great comic timing.  I knew after first watching his performance in My Sucky Teen Romance that this kid could handle a leading role.  Katie Folger and Devin Bonee also perform well as Tony’s friends Elle and Craig.  My favorite character and actor in the film has to be AJ Bowen who portrays Tony’s Uncle Pete.  He serves as an older brother/near-father figure to Tony, but is flawed and far from perfect.  That’s what makes his character so fascinating and interesting. He obviously has a special place for Tony in his heart, but has a penchant for screwing things up royally.

I think that’s what makes this film so special.  Hagins writes and develops her characters so well that they don’t feel like the usual teen movie clichés  one would expect from the genre.  My only criticism would be the certain degree of predictability and transparency that this film contains. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly how everything would end, but it becomes pretty obvious where it’s heading.   Thankfully the film’s characters and their development never feel cliché and that’s what really sells me on their story.  Hagins deserves high praise for this film and a bigger budget for her next project.

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