Jonathan Levine is one of the best young filmmakers working today. His last two features, Warm Bodies and 50/50 demonstrated not just a beautiful visual style, but also an impressive handling of tone and performances, deftly playing with comedic and dramatic elements while also getting the best out of actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer. He’s growing and maturing as a director, and that becomes quite clear watching All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, both his newest and his oldest movie.
First premiering at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, the film is actually Levine’s first feature. Based on a script by Jacob Forman, the film tells the story of a virgin/chaste teen and major crush object Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) and her party weekend trip to a remote ranch house with a small group of friends (Whitney Able, Luke Grimes, Aaron Himelstein, Edwin Hodge, Melissa Price). In classic horror style, the guests start getting picked off one by one, but this time that familiar story is as rote as it sounds. If it weren’t for Levine’s stylistic contribution it would be hard to see why anyone would push so hard for its release seven years after its original debut.
As much as I will rag on the screenplay, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane is a beautifully directed movie. Filming mostly on a Texas ranch, the director takes advantage of the many stunning vistas and wide open fieldss. Mixing in a high contrast to the cinematography heightens the darkness of the story and gives every scene the pinch more of atmosphere that it needs. What’s more, the film proves that picking proper songs for the soundtrack has long been one of the filmmaker’s greatest strengths, mixing in classic tracks with more poppy numbers.
Levine’s skills, however, can’t completely transform what is a severely underwhelming script. Seeming to almost purposefully be as by-the-book as possible, the plot plays out exactly as you expect it to – twists and all – and doesn’t make any real big effort to generate a spark of creativity (though some of the death scenes are interesting just for their contrapasso qualities).
Forman also really fails to develop any kind of individual personalities for the characters. The entire cast is painted with a broad brush, the young boys portrayed as horny dickheads and the girls as catty bitches. The only ones who exist apart from those two extremes are Mandy, Garth (Anson Mount), the adult ranch hand, and Emmet (Michael Welch), Mandy’s former best friend, who are instead all just quiet and stoic. Watching the film I struggled just to try and learn all of the characters’ names just to be sure that I could tell them apart, and when they were cut down by the mysterious killer it was great news because it meant that there were fewer characters to remember.
In this day and age it’s actually rare that we wouldn’t be able to see a director’s first work before their fourth, but at the very least All The Boys Love Mandy Lane gives us a valuable perspective on Levine as a filmmaker and how he has grown to make movies like The Wackness, 50/50 and Warm Bodies. It would still be interesting to see the director take on some more straight horror fare, but hopefully next time he would be working from a much stronger script.