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A review of "The Peanut Butter Solution" (1985)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

It will be hard to give a firm recommendation for The Peanut Butter Solution if you can't see it in the same context as I did.  From a more "objective" viewpoint, it is a deeply flawed movie with some inconsistent internal logic, serious pacing issues, and incredibly cheesy music.  Even so, it provides a surprisingly mature and well-informed representation of children that (mostly) isn't patronizing, and it is so full of interesting ideas that it can be admired more for its conceit than its execution.  It's more of a recommendation if you have kids and you want to simultaneously entertain them while also permanently messing with their heads.

My Personal Rating:  3.5 / 5
My Rating for Jaded People on the Internet: 2.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

This is a deeply personal movie for me, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

You see, about ten years ago or so I thought about film criticism - real criticism - for the first time ever.  I had this idea that if my life revolved around film, then I could trace the origins of my anxieties back not only to formative moments in my childhood, but also to the movies I was watching at around the same time.

So I had a sort of post-adolescent crisis where I revisited movies that I had watched many times as a child in order to review them through fresh, adult eyes.  I guess I was trying to figure out where I went wrong.  Some of those movies held up fine, but many of them - notably Toys, Garbage Pail Kids, and Howard the Duck - were, uh... less than pleasant.

(Incidentally, if you've never been able to feel the twinge of cosmic horror that Lovecraft was always trying to get across, then try reconciling your life after the realization that you are the direct creative offspring of Garbage Pail Kids.  That'll sober you right the hell up.)

But there was one movie that I had on my list that I never revisited.  It was some weird movie called The Peanut Butter Solution.

I had no recollection of TPBS.  I could not, for the life of me, rehash its plot, its characters, or any specific scene from the movie.  I only had vague images of terror, mystery, and discovery in the back of my head.  I thought of it less as a movie and more as a dreamlike state.

I went on to try my hand at various failed experiments with film, but I never did go back to TPBS.  It remained an odd memory.  I Googled it a couple of times here and there, usually to find various message board threads titled, "I thought I dreamed this!!!!!" or "This movie gave me nightmares!!!!"

Then I found out that it had been posted on Youtube.

So, here's the deal.  There's a Canadian film company called Les Productions la FĂȘte that was founded with the goal of producing family-friendly movies that emphasize non-violence, imagination, and strong child characters.  They released a series of movies called Tales for All, which each have a corresponding children's book to help promote literacy.

TPBS was their second production back in 1985, but they've been making movies well into the 2000s.  I have no idea how I managed to see it as a child, but let me tell you - this is an experience.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Plot

Michael is a precocious kid whose father is a struggling artist and whose mother is currently in Australia for reasons I missed entirely.  He spends most of his time with his older (but not by much) sister, Suzie, and a dear friend, Conrad.

At school, he has a crazy, whacked-out art teacher who calls himself Signor.  Signor hates imagination, for reasons that are never explained.  It's one of those kid movie tropes where a guy is just a big asshole because the movie needs a villain.  In this case, the villain is the abstract concept of hating imagination and needs to be personified in order for a plot to happen.  So, Signor hates imagination.  Naturally, he decided to dedicate his life to teaching art to elementary school students.

One day, Michael gives some money to a homeless guy.  This is only important because of something that happens a few paragraphs from now.

Later Michael hears about a fire that destroyed a building downtown.  He decides to go check out the burnt shell with Conrad.  The building is spooooooky, but the boys really curious to go inside and check it out.  Michael alone manages to get inside, and he wanders around in silence for awhile.


Cut to an exterior shot.  Michael suddenly screams and tumbles out of a second-story window.  He  faints.  No explanation given.  This is actually a pretty well-done moment.  Other than a brief cartoony close-up of Michael screaming with his hair sticking straight up, it actually plays out exactly like a horror movie.

Conrad drags Michael back to his house, and when he finally wakes up, everybody is startled to find that Michael has gone completely, stone-cold bald.  He is understandably upset by this and struggles to cope with life as a bald kid.  His dad tries to give him a wig, but it's no good - some bullies rip it off during a soccer game and make fun of him.  Life is crap.

Then Michael is visited one night by the homeless guy from a few paragraphs ago.  The bum tells him that since Michael showed him kindness, he and his creepy homeless girlfriend will share a secret:  they know the cure for baldness!  You have to mix up a bunch of gross crap in a bowl, add peanut butter, smear it all on your head, and imagine that you'll get better.  Then you'll grow hair.

Michael tries it... and it's a success!  Except, it works too well.  Now he's growing hair ridiculously fast, at a rate of inches per hour.  Within a day, he's got so much hair that it drags on the floor behind him.

Then, at around minute 60 of this 90 minute movie, they decide to bring back Signor for one of the most nefarious and bizarre criminal plots ever.  Bear with me on this.  First, Signor kidnaps Michael and ties him down to a contraption in a factory.  Then he kidnaps a bunch of other kids and dresses them up in matching pink nightgowns.  He forces the kids to cut Michael's hair, harvest locks of it, and mass produce paintbrushes.  Boom.  Moneys.

Somehow Michael's hair is enchanted by magic, so anything you paint with one of these brushes becomes a living painting.  And somehow, even though Signor's scheme is profitable enough to justify kidnapping over 20 children and forcing them to produce and sell magic paintbrushes, nobody in the world is aware of this new inter-dimensional technology and it never comes up outside of the few scenes that take place at his factory.

Anyway. Conrad and Suzie figure all of this out in various little schemes, and then Conrad leads a child rebellion to defeat Signor and free the slaves.  But before they can leave the factory, Conrad gets Signor to paint a picture of the burned-out building where Michael lost his hair.  Then Michael steps into the painting to confront his fears and move on with his life.

Inside the painting, he finds... the homeless dude and his girlfriend.  Then he realizes that the fear he felt back at the beginning of the movie was completely in his imagination, and it's nothing to fear.  The day is saved.  Somehow.

Also, his mom comes back from Australia.  The End.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Personal Relevance

Listen guys, this movie has a lot of plot, a lot of ideas, and a lot of surreal imagery.  But I want to ignore all of that for a minute and just focus on one simple fact:  even though I could not remember any of the actual details of the movie - and even though I'll probably forget them in a few more years, anyway - this movie stuck with me.

I must have seen it when I was four or five years old.  And through all of my life, I carried one particular scene in my brain as a nightmare: a child crawling into a dark, creepy house and seeing something so terrifying that it could possibly kill him.

That premise alone rattled me to the core.  Even as a teenager, I would have an abstract idea of a child wandering through a dark corridor and being literally scared to death.  It's part of the reason I find the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise so terrifying, even though those movies are pretty much just a third-rate stand-up comic who murders people.

A movie - a work of pure fiction - can be so powerful that it can permanently shape your development in profound ways that you will never fully understand.  For me, watching this as an adult is kind of like therapy.  And the greatest irony of all?

The message of the movie is that your imagination is more powerful than reality.

Jesus Christ.  This is the sort of neatly-seeded thematic arc that writers can only dream of.  In the narrative of my life, this is the moment where the music swells and I make some grand symbolic gesture to show that I'm a better person.

(Speaking of ironic moments that only seem to happen in fiction, I was about a minute and a half into the crazy-cheesy soft pop theme song that was running over the end credits and I said aloud, "God, this is just awful.  Who sang this?"

And then this came up:

Not that I'm trying to shit all over anybody else's career, but that's the kind of comic timing I've never been able to pull off intentionally.)

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Thematic and Social Relevance

I'm going to avoid any kind of cultural discussion here because I'm not Canadian and I don't want to overstep my bounds.  I do have a question, though, for any Canadian readers.  Was there a terrible plague of anti-imagination sentiment back in the early '80s or something?  Signor hates creativity so much that he seems like a straw man, but I can't tell what he's being used to argue against.

I'm not even sure that the stuff about imagination is particularly useful.  Aside from the aforementioned confusion over its origin, it doesn't even have an especially clear message.  Signor is anti-creativity and is a villain, yet at the same time, the movie's central conflict - Michael's hair problems - are rooted in the fact that Michael has too much imagination.  Not only does his own brain scare him into losing his hair, it also makes him grow too much hair.

So is the moral that creativity must be tempered by patience and virtue?  Are the other kids supposed to be foils to Michael, each one possessing a valuable characteristic that he is missing?  Was Signor right or wrong to demand that Michael see reality for what it is?  I guess I just don't get it.  The movie's all over the place on this one.

It's greatest strength is that the children behave more realistically than most child characters in movies.  Too often writers and directors will underestimate kids' ability to understand an issue.  Or they'll go in the opposite direction and overemphasize a child's intellect in order to create some kind of precious comic moment.  "Out of the mouths of babes! Tee hee!"

The truth is that children are totally capable of all the same feelings and thoughts as adults, but they're just naive.  So of course a child will look at every little thing and over-dramatize it or otherwise act like a complete idiot.

TPBS does a great job of getting this across.  Michael has some comi-tragic moments of hysteria, both during his baldness and during his massive hair-growth.  He breaks down into tears over a problem that is kinda silly and honestly not all that bad; but to him, it's the entire world.  He has the terrible realization that he is now The Different One and his reaction is pretty much exactly what I'd expect a real kid to do.

Except for the part where he listens to a hobo's instructions to smear a bunch of crap on his head.  That was weird.

Suzie, too, is an oddball character that feels totally real.  She acts as a Replacement Mom while her actual mother is gone, and her mannerisms are at once embarrassingly precious, yet sincere and heartfelt.  She believes that it is her duty and obligation to care for little Michael, a brother that can't possibly be more than one year younger.

I guess it's hard to fully get across how these children come off the screen without thinking about some crappier representations of children.  Think about every made-for-TV Disney Channel movie, every ABC Family Channel movie, every little precocious jackass who's missing their two front teeth and jumps into the background of an Adam Sandler movie and says something totally random! for comic effect.

And then think about the last child that you talked to and try to imagine him or her acting the same way.  If you can pull it off successfully, then congratulations!  You hang out with stupid kids.

If not - that is, if your children / nieces / nephews / students are all normal human beings who act like people - then you'll probably appreciate the nuance of TPBS.  The kid actors don't always get it right, but they're given some interesting material to work with.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

Considering how oddly influential this movie was in my life, it feels like I should have saved this up to be the final entry for my blog.  Or maybe I should have used it as the first.  Either way, it feels like there should be some kind of important event going on.

Well, as it happens... there is an important reason I decided to finally revisit this movie.  It's because I'm going to be a father later this year.

What better way to celebrate the upcoming birth of my first child than to celebrate the deep and completely unintentional influence that art can have on a developing human being?

I picture myself in a few years setting my kid down in front of the TV, hoping to take a break for a couple hours while I do the taxes or write a bit more in one of my books.  I picture myself pulling a random kids' movie up from Netflix and thinking, "Alright, kids' movies, kids' movies... here we go.  Some crap about a singing clown or something.  That'll keep 'em busy."

And I picture my kid coming back to me twenty years from now, halfway through med school, and saying, "Dad, I want to be a clown.  I was born for it."

All things have an influence on all other things.  I think the influence is only unexpected if you forget this.  Hopefully I'll remember.