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By Merle Bertrand | June 2, 2006

The 1980s were known for many things: The dawn of music videos, for one thing, and the start of the home computer revolution for another. From a movie going standpoint, one director in particular created almost an entire sub-genre of his own to mark the big-hair decade. John Hughes’ glossy coming-of-age flicks like “The Breakfast Club”, “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” made the real life high school existence of their demographic audience seem like an almost impossibly dull grind by comparison. Though not nearly as slyly subversive as the deliciously twisted films of his contemporary Savage Steve Holland (“Better Off Dead”, “One Crazy Summer”) Hughes’ goofy and endearing teen comedies cast a refreshing, if overly glamorous eye on suburban American teen angst.

Yet, Hughes’ films seem so ‘80s now, and not just because of the clothes, hairstyles, and music, although those are all dead giveaways. Rather, it’s the plastic sheen that seems to coat his films…and I’m not just talking about Charlie.

Today’s audiences – today’s teens, especially – can see through the veneer. Wise beyond their years, they expect movies to depict their lives the way they really are, not just the way Hollywood tries to sell them.

Enter Kat Candler. Her debut feature “cicadas” caught the critics’ eyes with a look at adolescent life so authentic, it hurt. “Jumping Off Bridges,” her sophomore feature effort hot-on-the-heels of several short films, once again explores the adolescent lifestyle and all its ennui, warts and all. With the introduction of a family’s tragedy, however, Candler has raised the emotional stakes considerably.

Zak Nelson (Bryan Chafin), his girlfriend Grove (Savannah Welch), his best friend Eric (Glen Powell, Jr.), and their gal pal Lindsey (Katie Lemon) do lots of things kids their age do. They smoke cigarettes on the sly and sneak some beers. They shop around for colleges and wear funky clothes. They cram for exams and make out in the back seat. The one thing they do that’s unique, however, is to seek out bridges from the surrounding area and, once they find one that’s to their liking, they take a leap off of it.

No triple-dog-dares here. It just seems like the thing to do; a bonding ritual of sorts. But when the aforementioned tragedy strikes, it tests the limits of those bonds, pulling the foursome in new and not entirely welcome directions. And with one big bridge left to go, their collective plunge into the future’s abyss will either make their friendship stronger, or it might literally kill it – and them – in the process.

The uniqueness of the bridge-jumping aside, Candler’s narrative isn’t all that revolutionary or shocking. Not that events are telegraphed or anything, but we’re really not all that surprised as certain plot points roll by. Never mind that, however, because the strength of this film isn’t in the narrative anyway. It derives its haunting quality by its dogged sense of realism. Unlike Hughes’ Brat Pack-ers, for instance, everyone knows kids and families like these.

In addition, Candler brings a real, palpable sense of loss around death, for instance, not through histrionics and melodramatic shouting, but in Frank Nelson’s (Michael Emerson, in a superb performance) sudden breakdown in the Men’s Room. Similarly, the familiar artificially bright orange of canned vegetable soup, rather than home cooked meals at dinner time, rings all too true.

Much of the credit for this authenticity must go to the cast members who breathe life into their characters; although Candler’s subdued staging and Jim Eastburn’s nicely understated photography help to strip away any artificial veneer.

“Jumping Off Bridges” probably goes on a beat or two too long, but that’s a minor quibble when compared to everything Candler has done right here. Touching, funny, sobering and as real as a beeping alarm clock after two hours of sleep, “Jumping Off Bridges” should launch Candler into the big time. Here’s hoping she keeps it real when she gets there.

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