In 1992, the TV-watching public was shocked to learn that Dana Plato, one of the precocious child stars from the late 70's/early 80's show "Diff'rent Strokes," was arrested for robbing a Las Vegas video store. Her desperate attempt to make the rent was typical of the strange acts committed by former child stars who found it difficult to escape the shadows of their own careers. Todd "Willis" Bridges was doing drugs. Danny Partridge was beating up transvestites. Adam Rich (Nicholas from "Eight is Enough") was arrested for drugs, shoplifting, and other assorted crimes before he was reported as dead. (It's all right! He's fine!) Surely, strange things were afoot for kid actors from the Seventies who had grown up into the adults of the Nineties.
Out of all of this comes one truly hilarious movie.
Former Child Star is the story of a fictitious member of the notorious breed, one Kimmy Archer (Dianna Damir). Kimmy played Cubby, the young girl around whom the sitcom "Cubby's World" revolved.
It's all Cubby's World
She's our favorite little girl
It's all Cubby's World
We just live in it.
It's terrible, the things people will
do for a date these days.
Unfortunately, time moved on and took Cubby with it, leaving Kimmy to float between food service jobs while pining for the old days of sitcom glory. Unfortunately, she can't even hold on to her current waitressing gig, as the restaurant's insurance agent (a nicely played cameo by writer/director Joal Ryan) informs the proprietor that former child stars are a bad risk and his premiums will go up so long as Kimmy remains an employee.
Wrongful termination suits aside, the owner lets Kimmy go and she turns to the only means of support she has left, as explained to her by a member of the ever-helpful US Postal Service: armed robbery. "As Americans... we're guaranteed happiness," the mailman tells Kimmy as he hands her a pistol.
During her attempts to rob a dry cleaner, Kimmy meets David Miller (Erik Pedersen): tutor, wannabe-novelist ("You know a lot of words," says Kimmy, "I'm just not sure they're in the right order."), and a fan of "Cubby's World" who offers to take Kimmy in to get her back on the right track in life. Kimmy accepts, even going so far as to enroll in a therapy group for former child stars as she searches for a real life post-sitcom.
Marvin, Jocasta, and Arthur.
In a movie market beset with remakes and Saturday Night Live spinoffs, it's oddly refreshing to watch an original comedy that's just plain funny in its own right. Sure, Former Child Star often relies on pop culture references to inspire laughs, but it's not a one-joke film. The dialogue is sharply funny (if sometimes haltingly delivered) and is as often centered on the absurdities of life as it is on the absurdities of being a former celebrity. As Dougie, one of the members of the therapy group says: "Has-beens are people too. Has-beens are people too. Has-beens are people too."
In addition to the main story of Kimmy's struggle to move beyond the level of fry cook, Former Child Star offers a couple of humorous side stories to liven things up. David's brother, Arthur (yes, Arthur Miller, played by a wide-eyed John Shelton) is almost as naive and childish as Kimmy, but that doesn't stop him from pursuing his dreams of being an actor. Arthur lands the part of Marvin, the best friend of Oedipus in a stage production called "The All New Oedipus." ("Who's that by, the all-new Sophocles?") Shows-within-a-show can be deadly, but this one is almost as riotous as the musical "Elephant!" from The Tall Guy. We'll let you discover Arthur's "relationship" with his Barbie dolls on your own.
Another particularly funny subplot involves Marmoset Man, a superhero who keeps crashing the former child star therapy group because the members of the superhero counseling session "make me feel inadequate." Marmoset Man, who presumably has all the powers and abilities of a marmoset, is played by nationally published author Steve Ryfle. Notice that the guys of Stomp Tokyo have never dressed up as any kind of small, omnivorous mammal in public, and yet we have never been published in Cinefantastique. This is proof that there is no justice in the universe.
Steve Ryfle is Marmoset Man!
Steve, besides being married to the director, also plays guitar for The Breakfast Patties, the band that plays the film's nursery-rhyme soundtrack. We must admit that the "Breakfast Patties" is as great name for a band, assuming you want people to think your band is greasy and causes indigestion.
As the level of Ryfle's involvement may have made you realize, Former Child Star is a super-low budget film. It's pretty much on the level of made-for-cable access, with minimal sets and costumes. In general that's not really problem, though we could have used a few more camera set-ups to make the events during the relatively action-packed climax clearer.
We must admit, for what they must have been paying these actors, they do a remarkably good job. Other than the occasional line flub, they're really into the material. Damir brings the right amount of naivete and deer-in-the-headlights stupidity to Kimmy, and Pedersen makes David into a sincere and sympathetic schmoe. Proper recognition, though, must be made of Shelton's superbly childish Arthur, upon whom much of the comedy rests. Although none of these actors have yet made another film, we can only hope that Ryan won't forget them in her next effort.
Former Child Star has seen only a limited theater release and is available on video only through the Former Child Star web site at a ridiculously low price. The tape will be sent to you in a video cover that could be described as "colorful" if you count black as a color. Still, this is independent filmmaking at its best, and we know all you black turtleneck wearing, Sundance-channel-watching posers can afford to cough up the price of a couple of lattes for a good laugh. Order it now. Right now! Do it!