A surefire recipe for cultural whiplash: watch an episode of “MTV’s Spring Break” or an installment of “The Real World” and then watch “The Year That Trembled.” Based on the 1998 novel by Scott Lax, the latest from Barnet-based director Jay Craven takes us back to a time when people of college age had things on their minds slightly more pressing than wet T-shirt contests or neurotic roommates and faced choices on matters considerably more far-reaching than their cellular service plan. It’s hard to believe the America of “The Year That Trembled” is the same America we live in today.
The film features an impressive ensemble cast whose members are recognizable to varying degrees. You never know who’s going to pop up in a Craven picture. The story takes place in the shadow of the 1970 Kent State shootings and explores the reaction to those events and the times in general on the part of several friends most of whom are fresh from high school. Under one communal roof, there are Jonathan Brandis as an aspiring writer, Kiera Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie himself, as the young scribe’s main squeeze, Sean (“Fresh”) Nelson as a born-again Buddhist and Hendrix obsessive and Charlie (“Super Troopers”) Finn, who does chuckle duty as “Hairball”, the resident stoner doofus.
Down the road, “Once And Again”‘s Marin Hinkle is starting a family with her young husband played by Jonathan M. Woodward. She’s a high school teacher who’s come under school board fire for expressing antiwar sentiments to her students. He’s a paralegal who wants to follow in the footsteps of the late Bobby Kennedy and has launched a civil suit on behalf of the young people shot at Kent State. “Laugh-In”‘s Henry Gibson turns up as an influential attorney who takes him under his wing.
There’s a second shadow they all live in- that of the draft lottery. What should have been an idyllic summer in the Ohio countryside instead proves a time of escalating confusion, friction and paranoia. Characters grapple with the reality that their number literally could be up at any time and debate the options open to them: going to Vietnam, going to Canada, going underground or going to jail. Meredith Monroe costars as a young protester on the run from the FBI. She returns to town for a time and hides out at the “funny farm.” Her father’s a school official played by Fred Willard. The actor’s old pal and “Fernwood 2-Night” partner Martin Mull is close on the girl’s heels as a disillusioned bureau vet. Some of the movie’s most compelling and emotionally complex scenes are those the two share. The pair proves every bit as adept at making an audience think and feel and they are at making one laugh.
And the same can be said for the film. The turbulence of the times is effectively evoked JFK-fashion through a combination of character study and archival footage, both of which provide a troubling reminder that, not so long ago, this was a country at war with itself.
One of the story’s most intriguing elements was added by Craven, who penned the screenplay and whose research turned up evidence suggesting that the FBI actually sent personnel into certain campus populations undercover for the purpose of acting as agent provocateurs and stirring up unrest which authorities would then use as an excuse for cracking down on demonstrators. Jay R. Ferguson turns in a chilling performance as a G-man in sheep’s clothing. The addition of his composite character is a nifty Oliver Stone-style touch.
“The Year That Trembled” is new territory for the Vermont director, and he shows every sign of feeling right at home in it. This is the first time Craven has acted essentially as a director for hire as opposed to nurturing a project on his own from the ground up (he returns to more familiar ground with the upcoming “Disappearances,” the third installment in his Howard Frank Mosher trilogy). This, in fact, is the first film Craven has made whose credits don’t list him as producer.
That’s deceiving though. From his earliest work to his newest, this is a filmmaker who always produces.