British director Michael Apted has quite a varied repertoire on his hands. He got his start on the British documentary series “World in Action,” from which his popular “Seven Up” series was born; every seven years since 1963, Apted returns to the same group of British people that he began chronicling when they were seven years old. After a slew of British television shows, Apted began making features in the mid-70s, hitting his peak with the 1980 biopic, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Since then, Apted’s fictional work has ranged from moody political thrillers (“Gorky Park,” “Class Action”) to ill-conceived comedic star vehicles (“Continental Divide,” “Critical Condition”), from more critically acclaimed biopics (“Gorillas in the Mist”) to cheap-thrills junk (“Blink,” “Enough”). He’s even helmed megabuck productions such as the James Bond vehicle “The World is Not Enough” and the recent “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
The majority of Apted’s fiction and non-fiction films can be seen on Netflix, but a few, including his first feature, the 1974 film “Stardust” (about a 1960s rock band), “Agatha” (1979), starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave, and “Firstborn” somehow missed the boat. I saw parts of “Firstborn” when I was 10, and back then, its portrait of a single-parent family torn asunder by the mother’s involvement with a coke addict was upsetting. Now, “Firstborn” plays like a superior Lifetime movie-of-the-week; it’s certainly not great art and is thoroughly predictable. But given that it could have the same effect on teens and pre-teens as it did on me, and also given the fun of seeing Robert Downey Jr., Sarah Jessica Parker and the late Corey Haim in such plucky young roles, it is worthy of a wider distribution deal. I can say this with confidence: it is a way better movie than you’d expect from its awful tagline: “Jake Livingston had to grow up fast…because his mother didn’t!”
“Firstborn” opens with Jake (Christopher Collet), a wisecracking, sometimes surly 15 year-old, sparring with his younger brother Brian (Haim), also a wisecracking, sometimes surly kid. They bicker in genuine 1980s style; it’s the age of wet willies, spitting in the Minute Maid and regarding “boogerbrain” as a cutting insult. Collet (who, with his skinny frame, mop of curls and oddly misplaced confidence, comes off like a somewhat suaver Jesse Eisenberg) is a relatively popular kid, a refreshing break from the high school film norm of centering on an outcast. His mom (Teri Garr) may have recently divorced from his dad, but he’s generally happy, a valuable lacrosse player with a sweet-tempered girlfriend (Parker) and a ragtag but amiable group of friends (led by a stud-wearing Downey).
Then one day a bleary-eyed creep named Sam (Peter Weller) comes downstairs to breakfast and greets the boys, awkwardly. At first, he senses the boys’ discomfort and tries to buy their approval, presenting Collet with a motorbike. But it isn’t long before Weller and Garr capriciously plan to start a restaurant business, and Collet expresses his doubt, and Weller shoves Collet menacingly, telling him to “get off my back!” Then Weller moves in, and Garr and Weller retreat more and more from the children, locking themselves in their bedroom late at night, blasting music. Then shady-looking strangers start popping up, and cocaine parties become a regularity, and Haim and Collet wake up to their mom and new boyfriend passed out on the couch. (Most poignant shot: Haim, so notoriously involved with drugs since about two or three years after “Firstborn” wrapped, staring in horror at his zonked guardians).
As can be expected, Collet starts to lose his cool. He mouths off to a teacher; then he really mouths off to the teacher, and storms out of school and guns his motorbike into gear as tacky anthemic 1980s music plays. And that’s when “Firstborn” starts to really go off the rails. The keenly subtle details of the family’s deterioration (home-cooked meals turn to KFC buckets, which turn to Chinese take-out), Garr’s chilly, dismissive self-denial, the slow burn of Weller’s drug-fueled anger, the sadness of a 15 year-old registering it all (as conveyed beautifully by the sober, focused Collet)–that all gets drowned out by the ridiculous finale. Suddenly thinking he’s Magnum P.I., Collet hides Weller’s drugs, and understandably gets him quite riled up, and there’s a car chase and a climactic showdown in which everyone kicks and punches and swings bats.
Roger Ebert, in his review, noted that the film lost its nerve in the final act, resorting to a standard revenge plot: he called it a “three-dimensional, sensitive family drama that tries to resolve itself like a TV action show.” In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, she criticizes all of “Firstborn,” not just its ending, for being formulaic, calling it “the kind of film from which only one idea emerges at a time.” However, she goes on to praise the performances and the “authenticity of the middle-class milieu.” The Lifetime network was established the same year, but I imagine it had not yet released its barrage of dramas on domestic unease, which are by now such carbon copies of each other that the economic status of the family in question hardly matters. In other words, “Firstborn” plays as far more clichéd now than it likely did in 1984; when I watched it, I barely noticed that the central characters live in a fairly nice house, since that house so quickly becomes a broken one.
To me, highlighting the details of a “middle class milieu”–the clothing the characters wear, the interior decorating of their New York suburbs home–isn’t enough to catapult such a tried-and-true “message” film to a higher plane. You need performances and dialogue with just enough restraint so that the characters don’t seem like everyday types, so that their story feels somehow more remarkable. “Firstborn” doesn’t quite achieve that, but it’s a well-acted, sometimes appropriately tense movie, and worth salvaging.
Interesting fact: Collet, who dropped out of the film industry in the late 80s to pursue a theatrical career, has dropped out of acting entirely since his appearance on TV’s “Silk Stalkings” in 1998. He is now co-owner, along with his wife, of a pilates studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn.