VHYes is a film that really ended up surprising me with how much I liked it. Having heard the buzz out of Fantastic Fest (including that of our own Evan Saathoff), I expected VHYes to be on the slight and sillier side of things, to be a pleasant way to pass the time but ultimately without much depth or emotional gravity. I expected to look into the abyss of nostalgia for the era of videotapes, camcorders, and late-night cable and see gags at the expense of the neon-soaked late '80s. And yes, there’s plenty of that. But there’s something beneath the surface of VHYes that speaks to greater truths about how the analog era impacted those of us who grew up in it. And it does so in an insightful and subtly profound way, more so than its avant-garde comedy would suggest.
Though it initially seems to act as little more than a framing device for the sketch comedy that follows, the story follows Ralph (Mason McNulty) as he plays with a camcorder he gets for Christmas in 1987. Presented as found footage that has apparently been recorded over Ralph’s parents’ wedding video, VHYes chronicles the week after Christmas as Ralph shoots random footage of various shenanigans with his friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw), and while his parents are out at night, to record late-night television through an auxiliary cable.
These channel-flipping segments make up the bulk of the film’s meager 70-minute runtime, but they present a wide gamut of hilariously absurd hypothetical television programs. Painting with Joan finds the titular Joan (Kerri Kenney) performing a Bob Ross pastiche that goes so far off the rails that it feels free-associative. An Antiques Roadshow knock-off finds Mark Proksch handing out ridiculously gruesome and specific speculations about the purpose of apparently mundane objects. Thomas Lennon sells fancy pens and innocuous plastic baggies on a faux home shopping network. The programs go on to include absurdist takes on commercials, infomercials, workout programs, sitcoms, police procedurals, true crime reenactments, low-budget broadcasts, repertory film broadcasts, softcore porn, and children’s shows, with each recurring sketch offering surprising and ridiculous variations on television formats those of us of a certain age will half-remember from our youths.
But for as funny as each of these bits are, what makes VHYes stand out as something inspired is what it has to say about that fuzzy nostalgic feeling of watching the tracking lines comb the bottom of the frame. An interview show among Ralph's recordings talks about the impact that the obsession with recording will have on our lives, brushed off in-universe as technological paranoia but alarmingly prescient to a modern audience. This so-called “tape narcissism” starts to take shape as reality bends around Ralph himself, and the seemingly innocent framing device becomes a metacommentary on how recording our lives is in direct opposition to living them. Director and co-writer Jack Henry Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who both make cameo appearances), along with co-creators Nate Gold and Nunzio Randazzo, exhibit a profound understanding of how video technology shaped an entire generation for good and for ill, and their efforts create some surprisingly touching moments in the film’s final stretch without insulting audience intelligence by spelling out their implicit meaning.
I’m not here to tell you that VHYes is some kind of cinematic revelation. It’s deep in the same way that many Adult Swim shows are surprisingly nuanced, as idiosyncratic humor acts as the baseboard for gradually evolving self-reflective storytelling right before the audience loses interest and the show goes off the air. VHYes is ultimately just a series of well-conceived sketches that are assembled in service of examining a childhood wrapped in magnetic tape. But the fact that those sketches end up culminating to more than the sum of their outrageously funny contents is something to celebrate.