Touting the production company it shares with “Stranger Things,” the makers of “Kin” are hoping its association to the Netflix megahit will attract a similarly fervent audience.
At first moody blush, the two properties share enough DNA that comparisons are unavoidable. Its early scenes of a curious, outcast teenage boy (newcomer Myles Truitt) pedaling around the city on his bicycle and exploring dangerous buildings echoes “Stranger Things” even before he discovers, in one of them, a surreal battlefield of charred stormtroopers and an abandoned ray gun. Both projects graft sci-fi solutions onto common pubescent struggles, and, even eerier, both are directed by twin brothers—in the case of “Kin,” it’s first-time feature filmmakers Jonathan and Josh Baker, from Australia, expanding on ideas from their 2014 short, “Bag Man.”
But to hammer the similarities any further would only disservice the Duffer Brothers’ addictive series. “Kin” is at best an exhausted wannabe and at worst a tacky, stultifying parade of shopworn tropes held together with rusty wire and outdated glue.
Yet, despite its clumsy mishmash of coming-of-age narrative, redemptive road movie and half-baked Joseph Campbell mythos, “Kin” starts not unpromisingly, in the tense home of an unorthodox American family. In a Detroit ravaged by economic depression and urban decay—the accurate rendering of which is one of the few atmospheric details the Bakers get right—troubled teen Eli Solinski (Truitt) lives with his adoptive, widowed father (Dennis Quaid), a strict moralist and dispenser of tough-love bromides. The two get along, in part because they’re all each other has, but the reappearance of Jimmy (Jack Reynor), Eli’s older brother, disrupts the household and sets the story in motion.
Newly paroled from a six-year prison sentence, Jimmy owes $60,000 in protection money to one Taylor Balik, a mulleted, tattooed crime lord played by James Franco in a witless parody of his often-degenerate screen persona. When an attempt to steal the bounty goes fatalistically awry, Jimmy and Eli careen through the American heartland toward Lake Tahoe—Eli secretly toting his cumbersome space gun, which will come in handy later.
For Eli, who knows not of his brother’s criminal misadventures, this journey toward a sentimental vacation spot of their youth is a bonding trip. Little does he know that they represent the quarry of two dogged pursuers: Taylor and his relentless coterie of caricatured thugs and tweakers, and the robot/alien/secret-government whatsits that really want their weapon back.
This latter mystery, which isn’t explained until the film’s climax, is the only aspect of “Kin” with an ounce of novelty and even believability. The terrestrial, road-trip shenanigans are phony and asinine, including a visit to a laughable PG-13 gentleman’s club whose dancers are more clothed than the average visitor to South Beach. It’s here that we meet the requisite stripper with a heart of gold (a thankless Zoe Kravitz) and the club’s unctuous management, straight out of Central Casting. The brothers’ visit to another vice den, a nameless Nevadan casino, is just as ludicrous.
Truth be told, archetypes like this appear in David Lynch’s canon as well, though always filtered through a narcotic and/or slapdash self-awareness that the Baker brothers transparently lack. They film clichés with an adolescent grandiosity. By the time Taylor and his gang casually shoot their way through a police station unencumbered, the directors would almost be daring us to scoff at the inanity of it—if they themselves didn’t believe they were making art.
On top of its formula plotting and script populated by stock types, “Kin” is also the wrong movie for the wrong time. By glorifying youth gun violence—Eli delights in his ability to incinerate objects and people with a single trigger pull of his magic raygun—it couldn’t be more tone-deaf.
As with many ambitious blockbusters, the origin story of “Kin” seems to set up a fertile franchise, a discouraging thought indeed. If the directors cannot sustain an iota of credulity or charm or grace in their opening salvo, what does that say about future entries?
“Kin” opens Friday, Aug. 31 at most area theaters.