According to SPF-18, real life “isn’t always like the movies…sometimes, it’s better”. Well, speaking solely in relation to this film, real life is always better – no matter how sad, boring, or depraved your existence may be, it is still superior to the events depicted in SPF-18. You could be getting stabbed in a gutter and still be enjoying yourself more than if you were sat at home watching this movie.
Named after a protective factor of sunscreen, SPF-18 is the 2018 debut feature from Los Angeles native and experimental artist Alex Israel. Set in Malibu at the height of summer, Israel’s film follows the trials and tribulations of four teenagers as they come to terms with the harsh reality of being absurdly attractive, talented, wealthy, and (mostly) white Americans.
Almost all of the action in SPF-18 takes place in and around Keanu Reeves’ house. No, not a house owned by a character played by Keanu Reeves. In the actual plot of the film, the lead’s dead father – a man who haunts the film from start to finish – used to be a surfing buddy of the professional actor Keanu Reeves, who cameos as himself in the film, and who also lends his beach-front house to the son of his deceased compadre. This boy’s name is Johnny – a nod to Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah from the popcorn classic Point Break.
If you’re not confused yet, you will be. If you’re confused already, prepare to be more so. SPF-18 has such little plot that it’s barely worthy of a student short film, and yet this thing, this one hour and fifteen minute monstrosity, has somehow been written, produced, and released under the guidance of some of Hollywood’s brightest talents. But what is the story? What is SPF-18 about? Well, a lot of things. Life. Love. Creativity. Freedom. Spirituality. And partner-swapping with your cousin.
If, somehow, you fail to pick up on any of the film’s central themes through their sheer repetition in practically every line of dialogue, then fret not. An unbelievably annoying and incessant narration delivered -inexplicably – by Goldie Hawn ensures that viewers don’t miss a thing. Goldie’s supremely condescending words of wisdom to the film’s protagonists, people to whom she has no apparent relation, materialise in almost every scene, unwanted and at random. From her opening monologue about the blurred lines of fiction and fantasy in Hollywood to her encouragement of an eighteen year old girl to cheat on the boyfriend who relieved her of her virginity less than 24 hours ago, Miss Hawn’s trite commentary is both unrelenting and unforgivable.
Three hundred words in, and we’re no closer to cracking the SPF-18 code. What is this film? Where is it? Why is it? Simply put. SPF-18 is an atrociously written, laughably amateur romantic comedy in which a group of adolescents go surfing, have sex, and generally live it up in Keanu Reeves’ luxury pad. It may be an act of poor judgement to recommend the film, but it’s honestly worth watching for the experience. Like the legendary so-bad-it’s-good The Room, SPF-18’s intrigue stems from the fact that nobody involved in the film appears to have had a clue what they were doing. Watching SPF-18, though, you’re more likely to cry than to laugh. For sanity’s sake, it is best viewed in the company of loved ones.
Perhaps you can make up a drinking game in which everyone takes a shot of cyanide whenever Johnny (Noah Centineo) mentions his dead father, who died in a surfing accident a year before the events of the film. Or, for that matter, whenever anyone else mentions the fact that his dead father died in a surfing accident. Like Goldie Hawn, for example; with shameless expository glee she tells us all about it the very first time we meet him: “Johnny probably shouldn’t be driving a motorcycle. He inherited it from his Dad, after the surfing accident. He hasn’t been in the water since”. Pretty helpful, in case you end up missing the dozens of references to his dead Dad later on.
Genuinely, his Dad dying in a surfing-related incident is mentioned on average at least twice per scene. At one point he finds a trophy in a garage inscribed with ‘#1 Dad’; all first time viewers of SPF-18 collectively report that they hallucinate the words ‘#1 Dead’ in its place, such is the emphasis placed on his dead father being dead. He’s fucking dead. He fucking died, all right? He’s no longer alive! His lungs are full of the Pacific!
Alongside Dead Dad Bingo, you could also play a game where you repeatedly punch yourself in the skull as hard as you can whenever anyone starts talking about sex. This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of the film – speaking as a Criminology graduate, the depiction of teen sexuality in SPF-18 is borderline illegal. Alex Israel, quoted in an article from C Magazine, says that the ‘virginity issue’ really resonated with children focus groups. The admission that he forcibly screened SPF-18 to minors should be enough to put him away for life.
According to SPF-18, ear lobes are erogenous zones, Catholic sacraments are best performed in public while naked, and, when faced with a dilemma about whether to remain faithful or cheat on your partner, you should “follow your heart” and bang the fanatically religious homeless man you met on the beach yesterday. It’s like Charles Manson has written a film to indoctrinate new cult members.
Many of the most egregious moments in the film come courtesy of the pseudo-intellectual Camilla, the cousin of female lead Penny. In one especially painful monologue she begins by asking if anybody has heard of Icarus, before going on to outline the plot of a story which everyone on Earth above the age of ten knows. She does this in the most deliberately smug manner possible, assuming that we will be stunned by the profound parallels of this tragic hero’s tale with that of Johnny’s, whose return to surfing might upset his mother because, you know, his Dad died while surfing. At least this is what the Icarus moment seems to be ‘hinting’ at, anyway.
Then again, this might just be giving the film too much credit. Camilla (portrayed by Bianca A. Santos), also has a scene in which she shows a giggling Penny how to tie her hair back so it’s easier to…you know…in preparation for her cousin’s deflowering that evening. Tee fucking hee.
Camilla may be the worst character by far, but there’s plenty of unintentional hilarity and Hall of Fame cringe to go around. It’s hard to remember them all, and even worse when you do, but it is the obligation of this former semi-professional film critic to try. Here are a selection of low-lights:
- Molly Ringwald performing a cretinous impression of Dolly Parton.
- Molly Ringwald asking if her daughter thinks “she’s a ten, or an eleven?”.
- When teaching a girl to play the saxophone, a guy says “You blow, I’ll finger” – a possible reference to last year’s Alien Covenant and the infamous flute scene.
- An animated lucid dream sequence in which a boy is smooched by a butterfly, which allows him to get over the traumatic death of his dead surfer father.
- An extended debate about whether you have to accept the wave or impose your will upon it, which culminates in hip thrusting.
- The real Pamela Anderson jogging on a beach and flirtatiously saying ‘Hi, boys’ to two main characters – well, her mouth doesn’t actually move, but it’s dubbed in.
- A smash cut to a pair of bare buttocks as a saxophone solo kicks in.
- A Catholic baptism in the ocean, delivered by the person being baptised – that’s right, it’s a self-baptism (same scene as the buttocks mentioned above, by the way).
- A direct reference to The Matrix, which stars SPF-18’s guest of honour, the now disgraced Keanu Reeves, during which the actor saying it almost cracks up.
- The mirrored ghost-reflection of a guitar headstock due to incorrect lighting setup, which the filmmakers failed to edit out of the final cut.
- A dozen other practical goofs and gaffs, including some of the greatest continuity errors ever committed to celluloid.
The litany of filmic abominations goes on and on, but you’re best off seeing them for yourself. On with with case against SPF-18, then.
The screenplay for this film is a disgrace, not only to writers everywhere but to the species in general. Michael Berk, whose surname is most certainly the operative word in this situation, does not depict a single normal human interaction throughout the entire script. It’s as though he’s never been outside, having been locked in a padded cell for thirty years with only the endless re-runs of soft porn films for company, and has then been forced at gun point to write a full length screenplay about teenage beach bums. But then you check his IMDb page, and the pieces fall into place.
Alex Israel, a man who must have excellent family connections in the film business, provided the story for SPF-18, but Michael Berk was in sole charge of the writing. He was given this job on the strength of his previous credits, which are as follows: Soul Surfer, Baywatch, Baywatch Nights, Baywatch: White Thunder at Glacier Bay, and the 2017 ‘remake’ of Baywatch, called Baywatch, starring Dwayne’s ‘Rock Hard’ Johnson.
As an example of how little sense the behaviour of the characters in SPF-18 makes, let’s delve into the emotional climax of the film. Spoilers ahead. Ye be warned.
Penny, who lost her virginity to Johnny less than 24 hours previously, breaks up with Johnny because Johnny is too conflicted about returning to a career in surfing in the wake (ahem) of his father’s death due to a surfing accident. Also, she’s wet for Ash, a country musician on the run from a tyrannical record producer in Nashville who’d been trying to turn him into a teeny bopper. Johnny apologises to Penny for being a ‘douche’ owing to his state of deep mourning, and agrees to a mutual breakup in which he and Penny remain friends.
Penny then appears at a remote sea-side cliff, where Ash is performing poorly dubbed country music to the wind, tells him that she and Johnny have broken up, kisses him on the lips, and, we are left to imagine, has sex with him. Right in view of a public beach. Meanwhile, Johnny is seduced by Camilla, Penny’s cousin, who had previously kissed Johnny after attempting to hypnotise him earlier in the film. After they’ve hooked up (a world record rebound in Johnny’s case, surely) Penny materialises once again, sans Ash, to beg them for help.
The problem is that she recorded a video of Ash performing a country music track on a Malibu boardwalk, and uploaded said video to YouTube, where it went viral instantaneously – this sort of thing happens all the time. Ash’s evil record producer, already furious at Ash’s legally punishable breach of contract, sees the video in Nashville and threatens Penny with a class action lawsuit. After consulting the copyright expert Molly Ringwald about the cease and desist, Penny entreats Johnny and Camilla to assist her in making a new video in which Ash explains the contract disagreement and plays an original song he’s written overnight.
They agree without hesitation or reservation. Johnny aids the cause by using his artistic skills to make a poster for Ash, the homeless refugee who used emotional blackmail to gain access to Keanu Reeves’ house (which Johnny is supposed to be looking after while Keanu shoots a movie in Morocco) and then in short order seduced and had intercourse with Johnny’s long term girlfriend, Penny. Camilla also does something to help I think, but who cares, she’s the worst. The video goes viral (again), the record company relents, and Ash performs at a sold-out concert in which he plays the only song he has written in his entire life.
And that’s as succinct a summary of events as it is possible to write, but if it’s not quite clear then please know it’s not the fault of this writer and entirely the fault of one Michael ‘Baywatch’ Berk (who, if certain anonymous sources are to be believed, enjoys viewing illegal incest pornography).
For a £50 incentive, your humble Movie Quibbler could have written a better screenplay based upon the ‘story’ of SPF-18 in a single weekend. This is no boast. This is to drive home how awfully, monumentally shit this screenplay is. And it had three script supervisors. Three. Without exaggeration, it is the worst script to have achieved production and release since Tommy Wiseau’s infamous The Room in 2003. This is the pinnacle of fifteen years worth of bad writing.
It has lines like:
PENNY: I’m a virgin/ JOHNNY: Say what?!
MOLLY RINGWALD: What do you think I am? A ten? Or an eleven?
CAMILLA: I hope you’re not suggesting that I should feel bad for being myself .
CAMILLA: I’m ready to absorb some primal energy from the Earth’s core.
CAMILLA: Someone call a doctor, because this house is sick!
ASH: I feel that way about songs. I find myself thinking, you know, “That song is more true than back when the thing I’m singing about actually happened”, you know?
GOLDIE: Penny Cooper thought she would be running off into the sunset with one guy, but ended up running off with another guy and a girl…and the first guy!
There’s no way to convey the visceral and inescapable horror created by the dialogue and narration in this film, let alone its delivery, without having you watch it for yourself. In fact, it is imperative that you do so. It will be the penance for all your sins. And, ultimately, it may be your salvation.
Besides an appearance from Keanu Reeves that will mar his career up until his death and beyond, there are also the deeply upsetting cameo appearances of 80s cinema icons Molly Ringwald and Rosanna Arquette; both appear to be utterly spiritually bankrupt, and are certainly financially so, else they wouldn’t be appearing in this steaming sand-rolled shit of a movie.
The talent attached to this film has one wondering if there isn’t a more sinister backstory to its inception. What if Alex Israel is the only child of a deranged mafia boss based out of the Los Angeles area, and who will go to any length – including taking Keanu Reeves’ family hostage – in order to help fulfil the artistic pretensions of his socially handicapped, sexually deviant man-child son? That scenario is considerably more likely than Keanu’s manager reading the script and recommending that he take the role.
It seems as though Alex Israel’s ruthless mobster of a father also sent his vicious, unhinged thugs to work over the execs at Sony and Universal music. How else could Alex possibly have afforded such a slew of incredible 80s ballads for such a small-release independent film?
Tough as it is to admit it, SPF-18’s soundtrack is 100% lit. Which makes the viewing experience all the stranger. Dodgy dubs, terrible lighting, continuous (and unintentional) shaky-cam, unflattering and embarrassing cinematography, and atrocious acting are all on display here – and all set to some of the most recognisable music of the decade which it tries so desperately to emulate. In that at least, it succeeds, blasting out non-stop bangers by Duran Duran, Fleetwood Mac, Spandau Ballet, The Buggles, and the Cocteau Twins. And they must have cost a fortune to use. Unless, of course, Alex Israel Senior had knives held to the throats of the copyright owners’ children.
There’s not much more to say about the film at this stage. Besides, the entire review is redundant, because SPF-18 is truly one of those ‘see it to believe it’ cases. With zero reviews from professional publications at the time of writing, perhaps Movie Quibble will be the one to help it break onto the mainstream like the crashing waves which wash over the self-absorbed protagonists in SPF-18.
One IMDb user praised the film for being so bad that it encouraged him to work harder as a filmmaker and complete his debut: “because it couldn’t be as bad as SPF-18”. Funny, yes, but wrong, because the comment carries the whiff of faint praise, which cannot be permitted for a film such as this. Watching SPF-18 is a form of self-harm. It is the nadir of the cinematic art. Make no mistake about it: this film is a hate crime, perpetrated not just against humanity but against all life on Earth. SPF-18 is available to stream now on iTunes and Netflix.
Thank you for reading, and here’s hoping for a cease and desist from Alex Israel’s production company in the near future.
NB: This trailer employs editing trickery to make it appear as though Johnny says “OK” when Penny reveals that she’s a virgin. In the film, his response is rather less composed: “Say whaaaat?!”
It was very important to bring this to your attention.
Have a nice day. Oh, and one more thing: Don’t forget your sunscreen! Or do, get cancer, and die so that you don’t have to watch this film.