After many years, 5-25-77 is finally here. And with it the best movie of 2017 has arrived. A flat-out masterpiece, this whimsical autobiographical tale about the very first fan of Star Wars is as much about life as it is about a 40-year-old sci-fi/fantasy film. It’s a beautiful work about holding onto your dreams and remembering the power of movies themselves.
5-25-77 opens in 1968, when a young Pat Johnson sees 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time with his parents and is blown away. The experience makes him find his calling as a filmmaker, but as his talent grows, his parents’ marriage disintegrates. At 17, Pat Johnson (John Francis Daley) is still making little movies in his backyard with his partner-in-crime and best friend Bill (Steve Coulter). Yet in the small town of Wadsworth, Illinois (Population 750), Pat has essentially become an outsider.
Over the course of a year we see Pat mature and meet three people who help shape his life. One is Robin (Katie Jeep), who becomes one of Pat’s confidants. Another is Linda (Emmi Chen), the girl who captures Pat’s heart just by reading 2001 the book. The third is Herb Lightman (Austin Pendleton), the editor of American Cinematographer magazine, who (thanks to the efforts of Pat’s mother played by Colleen Camp) is able to fly Pat to L.A. to meet his idol, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull. He gets far more than that; he also gets to meet Steven Spielberg while working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and is shown a work-in-progress print of a little movie called Star Wars.
Awash with new information and returning home, Pat is ready to convince everyone in his small town that Star Wars is a movie worth seeing. When you’re the outsider in a town of 750, though, that’s easier said than done. Every obstacle is thrown in Pat’s way and nothing goes right, especially when he is torn between staying where he is or venturing out to pursue his dreams.
5-25-77 has been in the works for over a decade. It was made completely independent of the Hollywood system, and like other projects of its ilk, it could easily come off as a vanity project. Yet it isn’t; this is a passion project that’s been brought to the screen with more care and assurance than a summer’s worth of Hollywood movies combined. While some of it looks a little crude, that’s part of what makes the movie so enduring, suggesting that this is what Pat himself would have made if he could.
The performances are simply impeccable. John Francis Daley in particular gives a career-best performance as Pat, managing to bring us back to the ‘70s. Coulter, Jeep, and Chen all give terrific support to the story as well, making us believe that even outsiders can have great friends. Camp, Pendleton, and Neil Flynn all produce great moments that bring us both a laugh and a tear.
At its core a comedy-drama, the movie mixes tones beautifully. The comedy is driven by one-liners more than by visual gags, but even the latter work great (the monolith gag in one of Pat’s dreams, titled “The Dawn of Pat,” is hilarious). Dramatic moments in the film resonate even more because of their familiarity. This is especially true near the end of the movie when we see Pat at a crossroads; we have no idea what will happen next, and that’s how it should be.
It might be about Star Wars, but 5-25-77’s stronger influence in terms of structure and setup is 2001. In addition to the aforementioned Dawn of Pat joke, the movie has a truly amazing sequence transitioning us from rural Illinois to the west coast. Subtitled “Hollywood and Beyond The Infinite,” the movie opens from its 1.85:1 dimensions to 2.35:1 widescreen, creating a truly epic sense of stepping out of your comfort zone and seeing something new and extraordinary. When the film goes back to its 1.85:1 dimensions, we understand how huge the trip to Hollywood was for Pat and how small Wadsworth is in comparison.
5-25-77 is a different coming-of-age tale than we’re used to, and it’s all the better for it. It wants us to feel and believe it’s something you’ve never quite seen before, and writer/director Patrick Read Johnson pulls that off with ease and charm. The movie opens with the caption “Most of this is true. The rest is even truer,” and it sells the claim — the film is grounded in reality but achieves a real sense of wonder.
5-25-77 is easily the best movie of the year. It’s also well worth the extremely long wait and the relative difficulty of seeing it. It’s currently playing only in a handful of theaters across the country, but if you go to the film’s website 5-25-77themovie.com, you can captain a screening in your hometown and get people to reserve tickets. It will help spread the word about how amazing and beautiful 5-25-77 really is. Believe it, you simply don’t want to miss it. It’s an absolute masterpiece that will make you want to pursue your dreams and go farther than you ever imagined.