Set in a post-industrial ‘Neverland’ of worn down row houses, looming factories and desolate, rocky seashores, a cast of mostly unnamed, gender and age ambiguous figures share misadventures that explore friendship, sexuality and the trials that characterize aging. Spooning one another at night, card games, attempts at hypnotism, impromptu races, haircuts by the blade of a pocket knife and sexual fantasies all function as means for the characters to self reflect and attempt knowing one another.
Built from interpretations and reenactments of some of the most widely known examples of 1980s coming of age films, including The Outsiders (1983), Stand By Me (1986) and The Year My Voice Broke (1987), The Year I Broke My Voice re-approaches the master narrative of childhood’s transition into adulthood from a subversive, yet altogether fragile and uncertain vantage point. The reuse of these texts is located somewhere between protocol and poetry, poised to be attributed to a broader search for self-realization than what is delineated by puberty.
From the very first scene, active libidos and curiosities about sex underwrite nearly all the action of the narrative. While parents are mentioned in passing, this ungoverned rabble look to one another to understand lovemaking and to realize themselves as sexual beings. The film begins with two boys—a stout fellow with long untamed hair and a small boy whose name is revealed later on to be Gordie—spooning in bed to stay off the chill of nighttime. In this place of contact and repose, the smaller of them asks his friend what it is like to be in love.
In a later scene two bullies wander down train tracks and into the basement of an abandoned house. They take turns cutting each other’s hair with a pocketknife. Their haircutting is a portrait of trust, lodged between the risk of pain and the risk of humiliation. Close shots of hands touching and grasping, eyes wandering furtively and fragments of faces that inhale and exhale build a visual language of intimacy that recurs subtly throughout the entire film.
The stouter unnamed boy in the film’s opening scene later arrives at a friend’s house. After a brief exchange, he carries an entire chocolate cake into the living room to be eaten with his bare hands while watching television. A science program sends galaxies swirling across the TV screen as he licks the icing off of his fingers. In one shot, the following text fills the screen: The Creation of the Universe Will Continue. Operating metonymically for the film itself, this pronouncement seems to suggest the endless and perhaps daunting possibilities for the lives of the characters. However, this promise of ongoing creativity also suggests the possibility for personal agency in forming individual identities, as well as relationships with others.
Passing through day into night, the film closes off in a nocturnal state of indeterminacy. Nothing is repaired or improved, at least not overtly, but characters have shared tentative affection with one another, and those risks have subtly shifted their social landscape. The film’s refusal to offer any easy answers leaves the audience pondering many of the questions the characters pose, long after they leave the bleak post-industrial landscape of the screen.
- Matt Morris