Empathy is in short supply these days. It seems that way, anyway. Horrifyingly large numbers of so-called Christians not only allow bullying but embrace it and cheer it on. People who claim to have an evolved outlook on…well, everything, also lean hard into being judgmental and positively flee from the concept of forgiveness. It’s all quite dispiriting.

Though perhaps it’s not as bad as all that? Consider that, as I write this, an election that was supposed to be a red wave turned into a purplish puddle. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of two men being married — legally! — would have been viewed as madness. As polarized as we seem to be, there seems to be a great yearning for normalcy, whatever that is. That normalcy can only be achieved through empathy, the ability to see ourselves in others.

While movies aren’t on the vanguard of culture any longer, they’re just relevant enough. I love trotting out the old Roger Ebert quote, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” That remains true, just as what movies are about is less important than how they are about them.* Case in point is 1-800-HOT-NITE, a movie that seems to be about one thing and is really about far more than that.

Remember phone booths? There are a few left, and as the film begins, three boys are crammed into one. They’re obsessed with two objects — a newspaper phone sex ad and a pilfered credit card. We get the sense that Tommy (Dallas Dupree Young) is a hair more mature and a touch more thoughtful. O’Neill (Gerrison Machado) cloaks deep anger within teen bravado. The youngest is O’Neill’s cousin Steve (Mylen Bradford), a boy firmly in the grip of childhood.

The boys get Ava (Ali Richey) on the line, and she figures out pretty quickly who she’s dealing with. She’s sharp enough to crank up the dirty talking to eleven and make the boys lose their cool. They leave the phone booth, but the night is young and adventure awaits. The first stop is at an apartment complex, where their respective crushes are hot-tubbing.

After that, Tommy is asked/pressured by his pals to steal beer. He heads home, and that’s when things go right to hell. All the police in the world come smashing through the door on a drug raid and arrest Tommy’s father and stepmother. The experience scares the bejeezus out of Tommy, and Officer Riden (Brent Bailey) gets that. So does Patty (Kimleigh Smith), a helpful social worker, and she reminds Tommy that his stepbrother is only a toddler and needs him. They genuinely want to help, but when Tommy runs, catching him isn’t going to happen.**

From there, the boys embark on a nocturnal odyssey. They’ll evade Riden and Patty, run into their crushes again, and try to run a scam on some local scumbags that takes a dark turn. All the while, Tommy wrestles with the responsibility to his stepbrother, the shifting relationships with his friend, and the end of childhood. The only adult he thinks he can turn to is a phone sex operator.

While I’m okay with coming of ages movies, I like there to be a strong, hard kernel of honesty at the core of the story. Director Nick Richey seems to agree, and 1-800-HOT-NITE is a film that calmly gazes at kids who might be falling through the cracks. Despite what must be a modest budget, Richey’s film is made with style and energy. He keeps things moving yet knows when to hit the gas and when to slow things down for necessary character moments. I was also impressed by how well he’s able to juggle the tones of specific scenes and still make them feel natural for the characters. For example, in one scene where the boys attend an impromptu pool party, Tommy has his first kiss. It’s joyous, light, and absolutely buoyant. Contrast that with an extended sequence where Tommy is lured into an apartment. While I knew that he wouldn’t be killed (considering where in the film it takes place), it’s still one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen in a film this year. 

One of the tragedies of childhood is learning that adults can be malevolent or, even worse, apathetic, when it comes to kids. Richey’s screenplay understands that and focuses on how Tommy and his friends navigate a frequently confusing space. The characterization is genuine, and Richey understands that kids and teens might mean well but are usually unable to think more than fifteen minutes into the future. That means the plotting is often episodic, but you know what else is? Childhood. Speaking of which, the dialogue ping-pongs between immature nonsense and moments of real pathos. If you’ve spent more than five minutes with kids, you’ll recognize that reality.

I don’t like seriously examining performances given by child actors, since they often need to be graded on a fairly steep curve.*** Having said that, let’s talk about Dallas Dupree Young as Tommy. It’s a remarkable job of acting, and not just by child actor standards. Young portrays a kid on the edge of adulthood. We see him joyful, terrified, immature, and resolute. It’s not an easy thing for an actor to show different emotional states of a character while consistently playing the same person. The cast of this film all deliver honest and moving performances, but Young stands apart.

2022 has been an excellent year for movies. One of the reasons for that is 1-800-HOT-NITE, a film of uncommon intelligence and grace. It’s a special, moving, and often hilarious film. Don’t sleep on this one. 


*Another appropriated Ebert quote! God, I hope his estate doesn’t sue me.

**There’s no police officer in the world that can catch a well-motivated teenager on foot. Don’t ask me how I know this.

***I also don’t want to be the guy who writes, “I felt like (INSERT ADORABLE CHILD ACTOR HERE) gave a terrible and forced performance.”

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.