July 26, 1985
THE HEAVENLY KID is another mildly-watchable but understandably forgotten also-ran from the overflowing Summer of 1985. It’s kind of a teen comedy and kind of an adult romance, with a fantastical/supernatural type gimmick.
It opens in the early ‘60s when Bobby Fontana (Lewis Smith, SOUTHERN COMFORT), a super cool James Dean type leather jacket wearing rebel, drives off a cliff during a dangerous challenge race over some macho bullshit (or “honor,” he calls it). He comes to on a crowded subway car that he doesn’t seem to realize is his transport to the afterlife. He’s stopped at the train station escalator to “Uptown,” and angel/bureaucrat/whatever Rafferty (Richard Mulligan, TEACHERS) puts him back on the train until he can receive his assignment to earn his way up.
So yeah, there’s some DEFENDING YOUR LIFE and BEETLEJUICE type satirical fantasy in here, but he’s on that train until 1985, when he’s finally given his mission to help out clueless high school nerd Lenny Barnes (Jason Gedrick right before IRON EAGLE).
At first it seems like an easy assignment: Lenny is so clueless he stumbles backwards off a cliff, and Bobby catches him. But his job is not to just save him from epic clumsiness, but to make him feel better about himself. And Bobby is not enthusiastic about hanging out with some geek, even though he literally can’t be seen by anyone else.
Lenny has your typical teen movie stuff going on. He’s terrorized by a James-Spader-esque bully named Fred Gallo (Stephen Gregory, “Biff Belvedere” on an episode of St. Elswewhere, “Hoagy Deleplant” on a 21 Jump Street), he has a crush on a popular blonde girl who treats him like shit (Anne Sawyer, whose only other movie credit is CHARLEY HANNAH  starring Robert Conrad and his son Shane). When I saw him talk about her with his burger restaurant co-worker Melissa (Nancy Valen, PORKY’S REVENGE!) I asked “Is that his sister, or his friend who he’s too oblivious to notice is in love with him until the end of the movie?” It was option B.
After some hijinks, Bobby convinces him he’s an angel and starts to teach him how to be “cool,” through various comical montages. Of course this means driving a magically-built retro car, wearing a jacket with lots of zippers and being aggressive toward women. He tries touching a woman’s shoulder on the street and is justifiably flipped into the bushes. It works best when he pushes back against Bobby’s old fashioned notions, but it ends up working so well that Fred turns into the nerd, seething that Lenny is “nothin but a candy ass under those fancy clothes of yours,” but nobody listens.
For some reason cool Bobby, who lived well into the beatnik era, has never heard of marijuana, while uptight nerd Lenny is casually familiar with its usage. It does not feel like a realistic depiction of 1985 teen life. For example, everybody in school crams into the same burger restaurant every night. That seems more like what movies tell us about the ‘50s and ‘60s. Speaking of night life, there’s a scene where they go to a bar that Bobby says is his kind of place, not realizing it has turned into a leather bar. It’s obviously a joke based in homophobia, but doesn’t come off very harsh. And for some reason three babes ask them for a ride in the parking lot. I don’t know if they made the same mistake or what.
A big reveal that we definitely see coming from the opening scene is that Lenny’s mom is Bobby’s high school love Emily (Jane Kaczmarek, UNCOMMON VALOR) and his dad is Joe, the guy Bobby was racing when he died. In that opening scene he does seem upset that his macho competition has killed Bobby, but it still seems laughable that Emily falls into his warm embrace.
And the other twist is that Bobby is Lenny’s biological father, which I certainly thought of but had ruled out using the power of mathematics. Turns out I was wrong – Lenny is a high school student in his early to mid twenties.
I’m gonna go ahead and SPOILER a major emotional payoff near the end, because I want to compliment the movie. Bobby is still physically the same adult-looking teenager who stubbornly raced against asshole Joe “for honor,” and it’s upsetting to him to find out that the love of his short life married his enemy. But when he learns that young Joe knew Emily was pregnant with Bobby’s son when he married her and raised him, he realizes that’s worthy of respect, drops his grudge, and expresses gratitude. What I really like about this is that we’ve already seen that Joe can be kind of an ass, and has been known to spend evenings in a La-Z-Boy drunk with his pants undone. So it’s not like it was a big misunderstanding, he was actually a great guy the whole time. It’s that yeah, he’s a flawed person but has done some very good things. A little bit of nuance in a mostly broad movie.
I found Bobby’s story to be more effective than Lenny’s, mainly because it does that thing where he treats Melissa bad for most of the movie and when he finally is nice to her it makes her seem like a chump for even being willing to talk to him.
Director/co-writer Cary Medoway’s only other movie was PARADISE MOTEL (“Trying to make friends, Sam manages to free up the honeymoon suite in his dad’s motel so his friends are able to use the room for sex,” says IMDb), released earlier in the year. Co-writer Martin Copeland has a few credits, most notably Steve Miner’s TEXAS RANGERS starring James Van Der Beek.
Gene Siskel called it “teenage summer film trash.” Paul Attanasio wrote that, “These movies never tire of lecturing us, all the while the camera zooms down some girl’s de’colletage.” I bet anyone here who’s familiar with it saw it on HBO or something. I think I’d heard the name, but didn’t know what it was about. It made less than $4 million in its theatrical run, part of what Wikipedia calls “a dismal year” for Orion Pictures. And it’s not some gem that people need to know about.
Luckily, it is the kind of movie that’s way more interesting to me just by virtue of watching it as part of a series. If I wasn’t watching it in the context of the movies released in this summer I probly wouldn’t notice how much it has in common with BACK TO THE FUTURE. Both are about a squeaky-voiced 1985 high schooler whose modern life is contrasted with the time period when his parents were his age (in this case “early ‘60s”). In both of them he hangs out with his own father, but in this case it’s him that doesn’t know it’s his father, instead of the other way around, and it’s him who’s learning how to be more assertive and cool to attract the girl he has a crush on. It even has a scene where his mom stares doe-eyed at him, but in this one she knows it’s her son and she’s reacting to being reminded of his long dead father.
I assume this is all coincidence, and I wouldn’t argue this one did any of it better. But it’s interesting to me because BACK TO THE FUTURE seems so distinct and yet this movie with many similar concerns was being made by unrelated people at the same time! Sometimes it really does seem like there are things that are just… in the air. We have these separate sets of filmmakers, but maybe they grew up in a similar time, and they’re living in a similar world, and reacting to some of the same trends and currents and whatever. Except BACK TO THE FUTURE is from a phenomenally talented young director backed by Steven Spielberg. This is the guy who did PARADISE MOTEL backed by Mort Engelberg, producer of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and HOT STUFF. So the results vary.
Summer of 1985 connections:
The BACK TO THE FUTURE similarities are the only substantial ones. There’s no peeping through windows, but Bobby does use his ghostly invisibility to look down blouses. The drive-in is mentioned, but not seen, which would’ve connected it to EXPLORERS. As such, their connection is that both have references to Mr. Ed.
I noticed a hand-painted banner in the cafeteria that was GHOSTBUSTERS-themed. (Another one just says “SKATEBOARDING U.S.A.”) There’s a guy wearing a Cramps t-shirt. And the burger place has Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.