Don’t be fooled by the opening of 1-800-HOT-NITE, in which a trio of preteen boys crammed into a phone booth calls a phone-sex hotline using a purloined credit card. This isn’t Superbad or, worse yet, Good Boys. Instead, writer-director Nick Richey’s film is a smart, somber story about accelerated coming of age that delivers a human, and heartbreaking story, without resorting to convenient violence, implausible melodrama or cheap sentimentality. It also features an astonishingly authentic performance from Dallas Dupree Young (Netflix’s Cobra Kai), whose charisma recalls a young Michael B. Jordan and who crafts a convincing portrait of a boy caught between the thrill of taboo and the encroachment of responsibility, with no idea what to do next.
As Tommy (Young), O’Neill (Gerrison Machado) and Steve (Mylen Bradford) get to the point in their sex-line phone call where they must tell the woman on the other end what they want her to do, all they can muster is a panicked blurt of lewd phrases. It’s a little bit of leveled-up larceny on an otherwise usual late night in Los Angeles for the 57 Posse, as these 13-year-olds call themselves. Before the night is over, they’ll also pop a few Vicodin and, to the extent that 13-year-olds possess game, sweet-talk the receptive, slightly older girls they know who are hot-tubbing after dark.
Tommy lives with his freewheeling and friendly father, Russ (DaJuan Johnson), his strict stepmother, Jenny (Nicole Steinwedell), and his half-brother, Isaiah (Kairös Frazier). He’s at his house to smuggle a few beers for O’Neill and Steve when police raid the home to detain Russ and Jenny on drug charges. Tommy and Isaiah are, of course, bound for the care of a child advocate. But after seeing police vehicles converge on Tommy’s house, O’Neill and Steve show up at Tommy’s window to help him flee the cops and the coop.
They promise they won’t let the cops touch him, but Richey lingers on their faces in a way that suggests they know that oath is empty. O’Neill has never won a fight in his life and Steve can barely reach his bicycle’s pedals. While this is very much Young’s showcase, Machado and Bradford also excel with effective work in a few crucial scenes.
Nathan Presley’s cinematography leans into the cacophony of their flight through the night, which finds the boys caught and fraught in a space between uncouth, unchecked fun and a frightening future. There are no wacky shenanigans here, just decisions that threaten to destroy their friendship, particularly when Tommy and O’Neill take a liking to the same girl. Overall, 1-800-HOT-NITE sends them on an unnerving navigation of danger, particularly during a sequence inside the home of some dangerous men Tommy is trying to fleece for money that will pay for a hotel room. It’s a bit like Blindspotting with kids or what the Safdie Brothers might deliver were they asked to make a “children’s film,” and feels of an impressively thematic piece with the underseen Emergency from this year.
Eventually, 1-800-HOT-NITE turns most of its focus to Tommy and the follow-up calls he makes for advice from Ava, the woman on the other end of the sex line (given voice by Ali Richey, also a producer and Nick Richey’s spouse). To Tommy, Ava’s come-hither query of “Are you alone … like me?” becomes an invitation to unburden. She’s the only adult Tommy thinks he can trust, and he hopes she will somehow cushion his own sudden, rough landing into adulthood. First he asks for advice on girls. But as their conversations lengthen, the walls close in on Tommy and his questions become bigger, Ava’s suggestions become increasingly direct.
“People want to be good at one thing,” Ava tells Tommy. “And people like us? We gotta figure it out too early.” That one thing Tommy will be good at is not given an easy answer by the end of 1-800-HOT-NITE; indeed, its final image recalls the frightening uncertainty of that classic Say Anything … But the film balances weariness and melancholy with wisdom, humor that is crisp and dark, and outstanding work from Young as Tommy comes to understand his window of opportunity is narrow, dirty and jagged. 1-800-HOT-NITE is a connection you won’t forget.