Aside from those pesky Arrow recaps, there’s been nothing but reviews of old Christopher Collet-Corey Haim movies around these parts lately. Weird, right?
Reviewing Prayer of the Rollerboys last month got me thinking about Michael Apted’s tense family drama Firstborn (1984), which, like Rollerboys, also stars Collet and Haim. Tense family dramas weren’t my genre of choice in 1984 (I was ten; Ghostbusters and The Karate Kid were more my speed. Come to think of it, Ghostbusters and The Karate Kid are still more my speed), but I remembered liking Firstborn anyway. So I took another look to see how it holds up.
It’s excellent. Teri Garr plays Wendy, a divorced mother of two boys (Collet and Haim), whose new lover (Peter Weller) turns out to be a violent creep. The pacing is gradual—Weller’s character doesn’t even show up until the second act—but the slow build works in the film’s favor. Firstborn is both subtle and, in its depiction of the powerlessness of kids, downright scary.
The film opens with “No Guarantees” by The Nobodys, a sinister, ominous New Wave tune about losing control. It’s the perfect tone-setter: Firstborn is all about the tentative balance of power within families, and how kids in particular are at the mercy of any shifts in that power.
Collet stars as Jake Livingston, who lives a normal teenaged existence in suburban New Jersey. He’s an A-student, he’s on the lacrosse team (which comes complete with an eccentric coach who tells grim cautionary tales about losing a testicle to athlete’s foot; crazy one-testicled Coach Finstock on MTV’s Teen Wolf can only be a Firstborn homage), and he’s surrounded by a gaggle of rambunctious friends. He’s a good kid, prone to no misbehavior more egregious than smuggling a bottle of wine to a park and necking with his cute girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker).
It’s been a couple of years since Wendy’s divorce, and the Livingstons have fallen into easy routines. She’s been dating some, which her sons accept agreeably enough. Mature for his age, Jake has loosely taken on his father’s responsibilities in the household, particularly when it comes to looking after his kid brother, Brian (Haim, in his screen debut).
In looking back over the wreckage of Haim’s short, messy, tragic life, it’s easy to overlook what a natural, unaffected performer he was in his very early career. Obnoxious baby brothers were an unfortunate staple of teen-geared eighties films—I’m thinking of Justin Henry in Sixteen Candles, Billy Jacoby in Just One of the Boys, Ian Giatti in Girls Just Want To Have Fun… hell, you could probably safely lump Haim in The Lost Boys in this category—but there’s something very genuine about Brian, who manages to be funny and weird and mouthy and endearing all at once. (A breakfast exchange between the brothers regarding a carton of orange juice: “Did you spit in it?” Jake asks. Solemnly and entirely without sarcasm, Brian replies, “No, I forgot.”)
The script, which is by veteran TV writer Ron Koslow, captures the easy vibe of suburban teen life in the early eighties. Jake’s and Brian’s friends routinely descend on the Livingston home after school like a swarm of locusts, dumping their ten-speeds on the lawn before raiding the kitchen for snacks and camping out in front of the television. (“Eleven-year-olds into heavy metal,” Jake says of Brian and his young friend, who are sprawled on the floor zoning out to MTV. “By the time they’re our age, they’ll be biting the heads off of chickens and listening to Barry Manilow,” sagely observes one of Jake’s pals, played by a very young Robert Downey, Jr.)
Soon, Wendy begins seeing Sam (Weller), who talks a big game about his plans for the future but who dodges direct questions about his current employment prospects. Sam gamely tries to befriend the boys at first—he talks Wendy into buying a motorbike for Jake—but his interactions with Jake and Brian are awkward and strained. After Sam moves in, effectively usurping Jake’s place at the head of the household, the dynamic tilts ominously: Small transgressions, like snapping at Jake and entering bedrooms without permission, soon turn into bigger ones, until before long he’s shoving the kids around and snarling verbal abuse at them.
Wendy, for her part, grows increasingly useless during all this. She’s too smitten with her new lover to take her sons’ complaints seriously, and anyway, she’s got a newfound monster coke habit to keep her busy. This comes courtesy of Sam, who is looking to turn a quick profit in the drug trade; he borrows ten grand from Wendy as seed money to start a restaurant, then spends it all on cocaine to sell.
Made helpless and frustrated by the new stresses at home, the boys start misbehaving at school. Pugilistic little Brian gets into fistfights during recess, while Jake flies off the handle at his friends and teachers. This sounds like vintage ABC Afterschool Special-level stuff, but, as with the ever-growing mood of fear and violence surrounding the Livingston household, it’s handled with impressive subtlety. (There’s a sequence in which, after Wendy and Sam skip town for an impromptu weekend getaway and leave the boys to fend for themselves, Jake returns home from school to find a shady stranger—Sam’s dealer, it turns out—hanging out in their otherwise empty house. Cut to Jake and Brian sitting outside on a park bench in glum silence. Not a word is exchanged between the brothers, but we get it: They’re freaked out and too scared to return home.)
A big reason why Firstborn works so well, just as Prayer of the Rollerboys worked so well, is the genuine chemistry between Collet and Haim. They’re simpatico, easily believable as brothers, communicating their growing unease with their home life largely through mute exchanges of grim looks.
After Jake finds Sam’s stash hidden underneath a floorboard, he swipes it and threatens to tell the police if Sam doesn’t leave. Because Jake is both a good kid and somewhat naïve, he views “calling the cops” as the ultimate trump card. Instead—and inevitably—Sam beats him and threatens him into leading him to the stash. From there, things explode into chaos, culminating in a wild splash of violence as Jake and Brian and, at long last, Wendy combine efforts to forcibly evict Sam from their lives.
Firstborn is odd in the way it hovers between genres, starting off as a family drama and ending squarely as a thriller. Despite having a teen protagonist and the outer trappings of a teen flick, it has a distinctly adult sensibility and seems aimed at an adult audience. It’s a film infused with a perpetual sense of disbalance and unease, in both structure and content. The Livingston family seems to have regained much of their equilibrium by the end, but Firstborn shows how quickly and frighteningly it was lost in the first place.