Kin is a cracking road movie that gets lost in nostalgia and wild world-building

The strong points of Jonathan and Josh Baker’s new film are undercut by identity problems.

Myles Truitt in Kin

There’s an alternative rock movement that grew out of Los Angeles in the early ’80s known as the Paisley Underground. Paisley bands combined a jagged punk edge with jangly ’60s psychedelic melodies. When you listen to even the best of the Paisley bands in 2018, it’s hard not to hear ’80s music — even if the bands are actually pretty reverently aping the sounds of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield or Love. Pastiche, as it turns out, has a sell-by date — one that’s probably shorter-lived in the music world but that definitely has an equivalent in the film world.

I’d be lying if I said I watched Kin and sat there thinking about the Dream Syndicate or the Long Ryders, but there’s definitely a throughline between the kind of pastiche those bands were engaging in and the kind of reverent ’80s nostalgia that runs through a film like Kin. Even if Kin is in no way set in the ’80s and, in fact, puts forth very few of the traditional ’80s signifiers (neon lighting, burbly synth-heavy scores, other shit they took from Michael Mann etc.), it feels like an ’80s movie — or, more accurately, the kind of revival movie that’s becoming increasingly common these days. Kin has almost nothing to do with something like Stranger Things, and yet they seem inextricably linked, in the same way that the Bangles and Opal have become synonymous with the scene they were born in despite their sounds being pretty different.

Eli (Myles Truitt) is the adopted son of widowed construction worker Hal (Dennis Quaid), a well-meaning but tough father who doesn’t seem too concerned that his son is acting out at school. On top of getting into fights, Eli is breaking into abandoned buildings and finding scrap metal to resell, which is how he comes across the very unnerving tableau of a bunch of decapitated space men and their very imposing space rifle. Eli doesn’t think twice and bolts with the gun, only to find that his ne’er-do-well adoptive brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has just gotten out of prison. Jimmy “borrowed” the protective services of psychotic gangster Turk (James Franco) while in jail, and he’s now in to him for $60,000 — an amount of money that his bootstrappin’ dad has no intention of lending him. When Jimmy’s plan to “borrow” the money goes awry, he and Eli go on the run, chased not only by his goons, but by some mysterious space soldiers that presumably want to get their mitts on the gun that’s rightfully theirs.

Kin feels a bit like a more confident and pared-down version of the oodles of Young Adult adaptations that were shit out by studios in the wake of The Hunger Games’ immense success. Without source material to revere, Kin avoids losing itself in world-building mumbo-jumbo and wasting its time planting seeds for things that will only pay off in the third sequel. It’s pretty well-paced and put together and, crucially, it doesn’t seem to be pandering to a particular audience. Kin’s source material skews closer to the work of pop auteurs like John Carpenter and particularly Steven Spielberg; it follows the chase structure of films like Starman, E.T. or The Sugarland Express and the idea that a movie centred around a child does not necessarily have to be aimed squarely at children.

Dennis Quaid and Myles Truitt in Kin

None of this is anything new and, frankly, nothing particularly exciting on paper. Its genre elements are tired at best, from the stripper with a heart of gold (Zoe Kravitz) that’s saved from her tyrannical pimp/proprietor (Montreal’s own Romano Orzari!) to Franco taking a piss directly in front of the gas station cash register as a gesture of gangsterly protest. In fact, this very same thing was pulled off with considerable aplomb by Jeff Nichols a couple of years ago with Midnight Special; in some respects, Kin seems to inhabit a world where that film was enough of a runaway smash hit to inspire poppier imitators.

Frankly, Kin’s major advantage is exactly that it has the kind of second-tier ambition that used to come with genre imitations. It’s a cracking little road movie that gets a lot of mileage from remaining one throughout. Part of the magic trick that directors Josh and Jonathan Baker manage to pull off is to keep the stakes dangerous without ever revving the whole thing to 11 or turning the action inside-out. Though not exactly Mac and Me to Midnight Special’s E.T., it nevertheless gains back a lot of the mileage it loses going through the motions by being a scrappy and focused genre film… for a while.

(Vague spoilers lay beyond this point.)

What’s both fascinating and sort of depressing about Kin is that its third act explicitly points out that it certainly began its life with greater ambitions. As the film barrels towards its conclusion, we’re treated to a cameo by a star with major juice who basically sweeps in to set up a much grander, much more of-its-time sequel. (One approaching, if not hardly matching, a certain war amongst the stars.) Having just witnessed the previous hour and a half, everyone in the audience knows that this is never going to happen. As enjoyable as large parts of Kin are, they approximate a kind of nostalgic drive-in / 2-for-1 video rental experience that’s the very antithesis of the world-building / expanded universe model that’s currently in vogue.

Kin ultimately shoots itself in the foot with great pomp and circumstance in its last 10 minutes by essentially implying that all the stuff you liked about it was just foreplay for the real movie — the one we’ll almost certainly never get to see. It’s the logical endpoint of basing yourself on movies from the 80s (which ostensibly only had to sell themselves — and maybe a tie-in video game or some action figures — within a two-hour period) to make movies meant for (possibly imaginary) 2018 audiences. What’s more: this ending suggests that the really interesting digging (of Eli’s identity as an adopted child of white parents, of the nature of this weapon which remains more or less a MacGuffin throughout, of what exactly lies beneath) is going to be done at a later date.

One thing that Kin made very clear to me is that, just like a particular flavour of flangy 12-string guitar riffs and ethereally distorted vocals spell 1982 to me much more than they spell 1966, this kind of Amblin-worshipping B-movie is going to remain firmly associated to 2018. But even more emblematic of the times than that, I’d say, is the idea of the backdoor prequel to a franchise that never had a chance. When we look back upon 2018, they may be the erotic thriller or teen sex comedy of our time. ■

Kin opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 31. Watch the trailer here: