“This is the Year,” directed and produced by “Wizards of Waverly Place” co-stars David Henrie and Selena Gomez, attracted plenty of fans excited by the prospect of a miniature Disney Channel reunion. However, while the romantic-comedy hits the mark in terms of nostalgia, “This is the Year” suffers where it most counts: its characters and its story.
The film is a typical coming-of-age story, documenting Josh and his struggle to profess his love to Zoey, the girl he has been crushing on all of his senior year of high school. When Josh finds out his and Zoey’s favorite band will be performing at a festival, he lures Zoey and the rest of his friends on a road trip with the promise he has wristbands to the festival, which, of course, he does not.
Henrie’s directorial debut premiered virtually Aug. 28. While the movie was initially slated to release in select theaters throughout the country, given the COVID-19 pandemic, Henrie decided to make the premiere more accessible to the public, hosting it on the movie’s website and including a Q&A interview with Henrie, Gomez and the rest of the cast as well.
In addition to Gomez’s role as executive producer, the film features Gregg Sulkin and Jeff Garlin, two actors who also held recurring roles on the magic-themed Disney Channel show. Leading the cast are David Henrie’s brother, Lorenzo Henrie, best known for his role in the television series, “Fear the Walking Dead, ” and Vanessa Marano, the lead in the Freeform series “Switched at Birth.”
In a beat-up food truck, Josh, Zoey, and Josh’s quirky best friends Molly (Vanessa Marano) and Mikey (Jake Short) set off on an array of misadventures. The film mirrors other teenage romantic comedies and lacks the depth to stand out among the slew of similar films.
“This is the Year” feels undeveloped primarily when it comes to Josh’s various relationships, with his friends or his love interest. Each relationship is introduced on screen with only a few lines of dialogue or the occasional smirk between characters. The only relationship that feels fleshed out is the relationship between brothers Mikey and Donnie, and even in that case, their relationship hardly contributes to the movie’s main plot. In a movie that is dedicated to romance, relationships that lack substance are a problem; when certain people end up together at the end of the film, the audience lacks the context to believe these people actually belong together.
Any relationship “This is the Year” establishes is further diminished by the movie’s predictability. The plot and the subsequent character relationships lack any compelling pull or originality, making viewers wish the ending could arrive soon. While Henrie may have been inspired by 80s classics such as the works of John Hughes, “This is the Year” lacks the comedy and charm that such movies typically harnessed.
However, some of the joy found within 80s movies is present in this movie, providing color to an otherwise dull film. The upbeat soundtrack, featuring many songs from “lovelytheband,” provides a youthful and romantic tone for the film’s duration. Also, plenty of picturesque shots keep viewers’ gaze, such as the characters driving at sunrise or the end of their music festival accompanied by fireworks. The cinematography itself is also charming, with Henrie varying the direction and pace across each scene. These consistent changes in pace gave the film rhythm, and, to a certain extent, made up for the straightforward plot.
Some ways this film rises above similar 80s films is in its portrayal of women. Changing the heroine narrative from passive characters to active ones was essential to Henrie and Gomez.
“[Gomez] really appreciated the way that the female characters were portrayed, flipping some tropes on its head, showing authentic non-competitive female friendship,” Henrie said last month in a Zoom interview with United Press International.
It is clear “This is the Year” aims to ensure its female characters serve as more than just romantic interests. Zoey, one of the movie’s female leads, is independent and understands how to carve her own path despite male expectations. Molly, a smart and quirky girl, soon recognizes her endless capabilities most notably being someone who loves her friends endlessly. Best of all, both women reach these conclusions themselves without male guidance.
The film’s central theme of appreciating the life you have is one is essential, especially in a world driven by rigid expectations. Throughout the film, both Josh and Molly continue to hold their relationships to a standard only achievable in movies. Molly continues to wait for the “perfect” first kiss, and Josh tries to embody the fictitious Patrick J. Michaels (a play on Patrick Swayze and Michael J. Fox). By the end, the two are aware not only is real life different from the movies, real life is better than the movies. All the radiant feelings of love are present.
Despite showing a fascinating dynamic between expectations and reality, the movie’s plot is a little too predictable. The distinctive directive choices regarding camerawork, blended with the film’s alluring sets, make the movie enjoyable and worthy of the feel-good characterization. For a film geared towards a young adult audience, the themes do hit their mark. And in a world dominated by social media and misguided values, messages like the one Henrie presents in “This is the Year” may be what every young person needs.