There isn’t too much drama but there is plenty of warm group atmosphere in “Dramarama,” the autobiographical first feature from writer-director Jonathan Wysocki that’s set in 1994 at a last gathering between high-school friends.
The religious background of these teens means “Dramarama” is treading in the footsteps of Stephen Cone, whose own movies in this sort of milieu, including “The Wise Kids” and “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” set a patiently humanistic and non-judgmental tone that Wysocki’s film follows to a certain extent, but with a far faster pace.
“Dramarama” begins with a slight misstep as it introduces its protagonist, Gene (Nick Pugliese), flexing in front of a mirror in his bedroom and then reacting with distaste to the sound of his mother’s voice outside the door as she asks him if he is going to church. Wysocki has Pugliese stare straight into the camera after Gene dismisses his mother for us, and the attitude here is slightly too confrontational given what follows. Wysocki then throws us into a flurry of quick shots that establish the era in which this movie is taking place, an instinct that will eventually lead to an avalanche of 1994-ish spoken cultural references for his young cast, all of whom manage to put them over with humor and gusto.
Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) is giving a Victorian-themed party at her house before leaving to go to NYU in the morning, and she is dressed as Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations.” The very proper Claire (Megan Suri) comes as Alice in Wonderland, the sardonic Ally (Danielle Kay) arrives as Mina Harker from “Dracula,” the beautiful blond Oscar (Nico Greetham) shows up as Sherlock Holmes and Gene comes as Dr. Jekyll.
To his credit, Wysocki keeps all of these characters distinct and rapidly establishes their relationships to one another so that we have a fairly good sense of who they are when he introduces an interloper named JD (Zak Henri), a high school dropout and font of negativity who delivers them a pizza and then manages to insult all of them. The too-cool-for-school JD thinks these theater kids are sheltered babies, and he is sharp enough to discern that Gene is hiding something from the others. JD calls Charles Dickens “a hack,” helps himself to the liquor that Rose’s parents keep in a cabinet and makes a move to steal Gene away from his friends to go to another party later.
Most of “Dramarama” takes place in the interior of Rose’s house during her party, but it never feels claustrophobic, because cinematographer Todd Bell stays attentive to the group dynamic; when Gene tells his friends that he is having doubts about religion, he is framed standing near a fireplace while the others are huddled over on a couch and looking distant from him.
The kids in this movie use pop culture references to keep tougher truths at bay. We see them do a parody of “The Real World” and a parody of Robert Altman movies, and they talk about “Twin Peaks” and Madonna’s “Sex” book and “The Crying Game” and “The Piano” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” and many other markers of that time. The problem is, the movie itself starts to feel like it is using these references in the same way the kids themselves are — as a ploy to distract attention from a lack of focus on what is happening between them.
The young actors in “Dramarama” are all touchingly fresh, spontaneous and ideal for their roles, and they give all this pop culture dialogue a chance of seeming natural. But there comes a point when Rose tells off JD in what sounds like a prepared monologue; so much so that JD even says it sounds like a monologue, which points to a larger problem with the script.
The performers are so inventive and so ready to act like real friends that Wysocki might have trusted them to improvise some of their talk and make it seem more realistic. As it is, “Dramarama” is ultimately worthwhile mainly because its players are so responsive to one another and to the idea of friendship that they make large sections of the movie come alive.
“Dramarama” opens in select U.S. theaters on Aug. 13.