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The first episode of Red Oaks relies on heart, not ’80s cliché

Illustration for article titled The first episode of Red Oaks relies on heart, not ’80s cliché
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They don’t make teen movies like they used to. The ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s were flush with movies aimed at the pre-adult set, each with the distinctive spin of their era (Pretty In Pink, for instance, could never be confused in look and feel with She’s All That). Now, the cinematic offerings from teens usually involve death, either at the hands of each other or through other, potentially scarier means. Red Oaks is a throwback to the times of yore, when movies centered around the average kid and their low stakes shenanigans: beat the bully, get the girl, get drunk at elaborate parties that never seem to resemble the ones you actually went to in high school.

David (Craig Roberts, no stranger to playing the lead in coming-of-age movies after breaking out in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine) spends his second summer off from NYU as a junior tennis pro at Red Oaks Country Club in New Jersey. He’s a got a hot girlfriend, Karen (Gage Golightly) who teaches aerobics at the country and a stoner buddy Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) who parks cars at the club and sells dimebags to douchebags. His mentor is Nash (Ennis Esmer), a suave tennis pro who is living his best life getting free Caesar salads at the club and bedding young employees despite the ring on his finger. Esmer is fantastic playing a man who brags about smelling like cardamom and Drakkar Noir. He’s smooth and silly, but inherently sweet and on David’s side, following in the footsteps of the older friend/mentor who cropped up throughout ’80s teen-geared films.


It sounds pretty great but David, like many heroes before him, is at a crossroads, and Red Oaks is about choosing a different path than the one previously traveled, to go with a Frostian cliché. It’s all set up in the opening scene when David’s father Sam (Richard Kind) has a heart attack. Previous to his near-death experience, Sam berates David for not following the well-worn path. His grades aren’t good enough (“A C is a Jewish F”) and he simply does not have enough passion for accounting. But as soon as Sam is confronted with the spectre of death, his tune changes. All of sudden, he’s filled with regret for the one that got away, a woman he met while fighting in Korea. He should have married her instead of Sam’s mother, Judy (Jennifer Grey), who is “a lesbian or at least technically bisexual,” a character trait that could have been communicated a little more subtly than her leering at a nurse.

Sam’s near-death confessions set the tone for David for the rest of the episode. He doesn’t want to be an accountant. He doesn’t want to move in with Karen, get curtains and become members of Red Oaks. He wants to chase the mysterious girl with a penchant for erotica (Alexandra Socha), whose dad is a big muckety muck at the club (Paul Reiser) because of course he is (it was a predictable plot point, but that was clearly intentional, a nod to the happy coincidences that so often plague guys like John Cusack and Anthony Michael Hall).

What struck me the most about the first episode of Red Oaks, and I’m sure this will carry over into future episodes, is that it’s about the ’80s that is not so steeped in nostalgia that it’s overbearing, much in the same way as Greg Mottola’s Adventureland. Director David Gordon Green—returning to TV after a successful run on Eastbound & Down—and creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi have built a world that doesn’t feel so completely foreign in 2015. There are no “radical”s, there are no “tubular”s. Karen may crimp her hair and wear insane amount of eyeshadow, but she’s not caricature of what the ’80s seems to be in our minds. It’s partially due to the script from Gangemi and Jacobs, but that tone is kept steady by Green. The scene where Wheeler and Misty (Alexandra Turshen) take the golf cart for a spin is viscerally perfect. Green captures a sense of youthful abandon where there are so many paths to take, but why choose which one now when you can get stoned and go tooling around in a golf cart?

Stray observations

  • Please go read Will Harris’ Random Roles with the lovely Richard Kind.
  • Hey! I also took Cinema of the French New Wave at NYU! I did not get an A.
  • “I read this book about Buddha, who, turns out, is not the Chinese Santa but this skinny Indian dude.”—Wheeler
  • Most of my notes were Nash’s lines but his pump-up speech was my favorite: “I’m building up to something, don’t betray my motivational speech. Suppose you remind me of myself at your age. You’re more of a white person, clearly less well endowed from what I can see through those delicate shorts. But figured, lot of heart, lot of hsutle. Also none of the other applicants would agree to the shitty split on the hourly rate. Sixty-forty. Oy, what a schmuck.”

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