In the fall of 1985 a teen drama came to theaters titled Firstborn. There was only one problem. It wasn’t a teen drama. In large part it focused on adults and their interpersonal relationships. This film was in many ways a near Academy Award winning look at the dynamics of a single mother, her kids, and what happens when her new boyfriend effects this close knit family. Quite simply, Firstborn was a very real film about a very real issue, that somehow sidetracked itself when it became a film that it wasn’t. What happened you asked?
Somehow, amidst this deeply layered tale, Firstborn became a story of drugs, car chases, and a David and Goliath-like battle in a living room that would be bespeak the independent films of the 1990s. You know which ones I am talking about. Those films that didn’t quite need, demand or even deserve a theatrical release, but would gladly show up at your local video store or on cable. Yet, they were actually very capable, good films. There just wasn’t a place for them in the major marketplace.
As I mentioned, the plot of Firstborn at first glance plays like an afternoon special. Wendy (Teri Garr) is a lonely woman raising two boys in a large house on a large plot of land. The story follows Jake (Christopher Collet), a high school student who also has to double as the man of the house. His brother, Brian (Corey Haim at a time in his career when he was still largely on the come) is a ne’er-do-well who Jake has to ultimately help his mother raise. They live a good, uneventful life that reaches a high-water mark when Jake gets his driver’s license.
And then Wendy ends things with her boring boyfriend and starts dating Sam (Peter Weller).
The boys first meet him when Sam is sleeping on the couch. And, while it seems like he has some potential, Jake is the first to smell a rat. Sam has a lot of big ideas, big plans, ways to make money and it all centers around a restaurant. Jake questions this and that is when the rift starts.
There’s arguments, fights, and a moment where it looks like Jake, Sam and Brian are going to come to blows. Compounding all of this is that Wendy, caught in the middle, sides with Sam. Then it comes to light that drugs are a factor in all this. Drugs are also how Sam plans to fund his restaurant and Jake finally has enough.
This is where the film goes from being Ordinary People to The French Connection. A huge chase ensues with Jake and Sam eventually going mano a mano in the living room of the family home. Wendy, having realized that Sam isn’t going to be the man of her dreams, helps get rid of Sam and it is presumed that things go back to normal in their household. While the ending is very satisfying, the action interlude felt woefully out of place, and most liked helped in hastening this film’s demise. The fact that Teri Garr and others were bothered by the scenes of physical abuse to her and the kids (and the issue of her matriarchal character soon being rendered one note because of this), probably made this film an even tougher sell.
Directed by Michael Apted, Gorky Park, Gorillas In the Midst, Critical Condition and the Up documentary series (the one that chronicles the lives of a group of people every 7 years), he seemed poised for this material. His ability to turn his lens on the frailties of everyday life cannot be understated. Firstborn has a casual feel about it. It doesn’t seem like there is any kind of a personal stamp at work. That seems to be by design. Looking at Apted’s career his resume reads like a craftsman. This, I believe, has served him well, as he isn’t tethered to any genre. Thus Firstborn feels like an after-school special at least to start. However, as we move through it the film becomes more layered. The characters more developed. This is why the ending doesn’t feel right. All that depth seems like it could’ve been released in a better way.
As we look back at this film it is going to take on a number of angles. Ultimately, you’re going to be the judge but it seems like Firstborn is still very relevant today. So why isn’t it ever talked about? Why did it only really come out on VHS with little more than a cursory DVD release? Unlike some of the other pieces I have written on forgotten movies, I’m not going make some great proclamation. I’m going to refrain from saying how Firstborn spawned other kinds of films. I’m not going to say how it was the most realistic film of the youth culture genre. I don’t need to. Those that know… know and ultimately, Firstborn speaks for itself.
The First 3/4’s of Firstborn Are Flawless
Lets be honest, most movies don’t hold up the longer we watch them. Firstborn isn’t that kind of film. The first 3/4’s of the movie are so well done, so ripe with solid dialogue and performances, that the end truly feels like a letdown. A lot of films start off good, Firstborn is exceptionally good. Why? Because we are disarmed by the character of Sam. Peter Weller plays him to such great effect here. One moment he’s the nicest guy in the world. The next minute he has people inside the house he doesn’t own or pay rent towards (when nobody’s home, mind you) waiting for him. Nothing is that overt. Sure, we see Wendy and Sam partying a little bit, but there’s this 1980s thought that that’s just what people did then. They worked hard and they played hard. However, Sam isn’t working and that is what ultimately undoes his plan. Once he loses Jake as a fan, Brian follows, and the battle-lines are drawn. They are all over the house and eventually boil over. The problem is that when they do Firstborn becomes D.A.R.Y.L. instead of the daring film it started off being. Truthfully, I don’t know what action they could’ve put in its place, but the chase scene that ensues between Jake and Sam (as they go and retrieve some drugs that Jake had hidden from him) isn’t germane to this story. It sorta seems like they felt that this film was too talky. They wanted to break things out of the house a bit, add more action, and this seemed to make sense. It doesn’t. At the same time, there’s no denying that Sam’s final confrontation with Jake, Wendy and Brian is necessary. It needs to happen. In that regard, the denouement to this film is pitch perfect.
Few Films Captured Teen Angst Like This One
I didn’t come from a home where my parents were divorced. I didn’t have to live with my mom or dad bringing new potential parents into my life every weekend. I didn’t have to share my home, my space, with somebody I might’ve hated. I am not saying that through Firstborn I have somehow experienced this. I will say that, based on the friends I have spoken to whose parents are divorced, and based on their familiarity with this movie, Firstborn seems fairly accurate. Aside from how it depicts relationships, Jake’s girlfriend Lisa (Sarah Jessica Parker) is particularly well drawn. All the interactions of the young people seem spot on. The way they move through the camera’s space, their banter, asides, and cheeky comments. All of this serves, to great effect, in showcasing the youth culture experience. Sure, there may be many socio-economic differences between the characters in Firstborn and the characters in a movie like Boys n the Hood, but how the young characters relate to one another is not very different at all. We are taken into Jake’s world. He just wants to go to school, hang out with his friends, spend time with his girlfriend and family. Jake wants to experience life on his terms. Sam throws a monkey wrench into all of that. This is something that we all deal with at some point. Life’s expectations vs. the expectations of youth. When that happens in Firstborn, Jake rises to the occasion in a way that we all hope we can. It’s that yearning for normalcy, that everything is going to be okay, that’s truly what stays with us in Firstborn. Even if, sadly, the film itself has been somewhat lost to time.
The Tension Between Our Main Characters is Palpable
It may be because Sam starts off like the perfect person but when things go south they really go there. Jake and Brian are both skeptical of Sam when they first meet him. And why wouldn’t they be? He literally just appears in their home one morning. However, Sam is smart so he tries to cozy up to Jake by getting him a dirt-bike. Jake starts thinking his mom’s new beau might be okay. The fact that his and Brian’s dad is playing an absentee only sets this stage more for this. Then Sam tries to buy Brian by getting him a quad racer or something. Jake smells a rat and is back to being skeptical. Then Jake hears Sam’s plans of opening a restaurant. They are out to dinner one night, the four of them, and Sam can’t stop complaining about the service. He begins talking about how he wants to open an eating establishment. Wendy agrees that he should do it. Then Jake “pooh-poohs” this idea and it really catches the ire of Sam. This escalates with Jake hearing Sam hit his mom. He knows that the two of them like to party with narcotics. Brian starts mouthing off to Sam some time later. Jake has to get involved and Sam nearly punches his head off. Things keep building and building. All very naturally. Michael Apted’s direction is laser focused. Subtle, yet nuanced, we get a “just the facts” presentation, but it has an emotional depth behind it. These scenes are uncomfortable to watch. Divorced or not divorced we’ve all heard people argue. As children this can be a shocking thing to have to endure. Adults often think young people aren’t paying attention. However, they usually are. They hear every word and that’s what makes the tension in this film so icy. This chill eventually takes over Jake’s house. It was done so well, so layered, that it makes the ensuing finale feel like a let down. It made Firstborn a good movie and not a great one. One that people could ultimately dismiss.
Robert Downey, Jr. Stole This Film
Five films into his career and Robert Downey, Jr. was already a star. Having played roles in films like Up the Academy with titles like “Boy on Soccer Team,” it seems odd that he could stand out in a cast with such powerhouse performances by Christopher Collet, Teri Garr, Peter Weller and Corey Haim. And yet, that is what Robert Downey, Jr., in the role of Lee, does in every scene he graces. Most of his scenes are very short. His total screen time can’t be more than 15 minutes. In fact, he’s usually on the screen with multiple actors. None of this seems to matter. Downey is magnetic. It could be his punk/new wave style of dress? Or, perhaps it is his delivery? It might simply his presence? Whatever it was it’s no surprise that he eventually cashed in this promissory note as Tony Stark in Iron Man 24 years later. There is a scene in Firstborn that particularly underscores this point. Jake is have a particularly tough time. He’s walking through school ignoring his girlfriend and basically shutting everybody out of his life. Some friends of his are kicking a tiny carton of milk like a hacky-sack (not sure why they would be doing this as that seems awfully messy but it was the 1980s), and it hits Jake. He starts pushing the perpetrator around and Lee gets involved. “It was an accident,” Lee states. Downey is so convincing that Jake can’t help but back down. Downey’s tone is so raw and real that it immediately diffuses the situation. It makes Jakes response, “You’re an accident,” seem downright tepid. Sadly, not even Robert Downey, Jr’s performance could save this film from being basically forgotten.
This Is A Truly Forgotten Film
Aside from a barebones DVD and Blu-ray release from Olive Films in 2012 (sadly, they still charge what most would see as an exorbitant price given the physical media market), Firstborn doesn’t seem like it’s available anywhere in anything but a cursory form. You can watch it on YouTube. It’s also available to purchase or rent in HD via Amazon. (Sadly, on Amazon it’s titled Moving In so remember that when you seek it out). Now, I am not saying that Firstborn needs a home video release akin to Avengers: Infinity War, but some supplemental features on a disc somewhere isn’t going to hurt anything. I would love a directors commentary with Michael Apted and the remaining members of the cast. Some featurettes shedding light into the life of this movie would also be appreciated. The reality is that a disc with more supplemental features isn’t in the cards for this film. So, it’s going to be left up to the internet, and 80s nerds like myself to try and figure out why Firstborn had the fate that it did. Ultimately, I think what hurt this movie was its unevenness. I think that critics were ultimately confused about this movie. It started off as a drama and then became an action film. They probably reflected that in their reviews (like Roger Ebert did on his show with Gene Siskel, At the Movies), and audiences stayed away. Also add how movies used to be released, longer theatrical runs coupled with longer VHS and cable windows, and it seems that Firstborn simply fell through the cracks. Even writing this piece about this being a forgotten film is kinda difficult because we don’t know the full story. An article like this sort of has an unevenness built into it. If you have seen the film you probably read this article because you like the film and it affected you in some way. If you haven’t seen the film I suggest you watch it. Firstborn is just as good and consequential as many of the 80s films you already love. After all this time, not even the years can change that.