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Hero Mode review: 2021’s sloppy version of a ’90s teen empowerment movie

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’90s kids might remember this go-to plot for live-action family comedies: A child unexpectedly amasses an adult level of power. Variations include a kid getting control of a baseball team (Little Big League), a kid getting access to the White House (First Kid), and a kid getting a bunch of money (Blank Check). Because it’s no longer the ’90s, the new movie Hero Mode doesn’t come with a wide theatrical release, or the Disney seal of inoffensive family fun — that company now mostly engages in a different style of wish-fulfillment. But while Hero Mode is an indie movie, it’s best understood in that PG-rated retro context: It’s about a kid who gets free rein over a video game company. The movie’s status as a family comedy isn’t exactly an excuse for its failings, but it’s at least a partial explanation.

Troy Mayfield (Chris Carpenter) is a prodigious teenage programmer whose mother Kate (Mira Sorvino) runs a semi-successful games company called Playfield. For nonsensical reasons reskinned as meaningful backstory, Kate has never allowed Troy to explore his interest in the family business, preferring that he have a “normal” childhood — you know, the kind where a computer genius is constricted to what he can do in his 10th-grade programming class, and his parent’s work is shrouded in secrecy.

This is how Troy fails to realize that his mom’s company is in dire financial straits, and how he accidentally scares off an angel investor who was planning to fund Playfield’s next game. Up against a deadline for a major gaming convention (“It’s about making one great game and showing it off at PixelCon,” someone actually says), Kate gets desperate and allows Troy to take over Playfield’s operations, hoping he’ll improve their new game and bring it across the finish line before their 30-day emergency timeline is up.

There are comic possibilities in the harried, competitive world of video game design, as Apple TV Plus’ Mythic Quest proves. Hero Mode doesn’t do enough to tap into those possibilities, as it’s conveying exposition with the grace and wit of an operations manual. Entire conversations are made up of characters explaining things to each other: Troy’s dad died when he was young; Kate has multiple sclerosis; Troy’s best friend Nick (Philip Solomon) is “a lot.” Sometimes, this information is conveyed back and forth between characters who already know it, making the audience an awkward, unwilling third wheel in deathly dull conversations.

Director A.J. Tesler tries to jazz things up with a dash of Scott Pilgrim whimsy, which in this case means fumbling around with a variety of cinematic techniques he doesn’t seem to understand: split screens, superimposed text, bizarre aspect-ratio shifts. (Is the idea to resemble an older video game cutscene?) The most potent tool available to him is a capable supporting cast; Sorvino is joined by Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Pilgrim’s Nelson Franklin, and Erik Griffin, among others, though only Kimia Behpoornia finds any laughs, and only just barely. Meanwhile, erstwhile Goonie Sean Astin persists in both ‘80s nostalgia (playing a senior designer who dreams of making his own Super Mario Bros. 3) and the overbearing, unappealing comedy he’s tried out in a few Happy Madison productions.

Photo: Blue Fox Entertainment

They’re all backing up the generic stubborn-nerd hero played wanly by Carpenter, who suggests little depth behind Troy’s aspirations — though to be fair, he has no help from a screenplay that has little to say except that making video games seems cool, but also hard. The movie has a starry-eyed faith in the gaming industry, ignoring any potential toxicity in allowing a teenage boy the freedom to do whatever he wants, with no management training whatsoever. Hero Mode’s only concession to the darker underbelly of gaming culture is accidental: It rewards its protagonist with Paige (Indiana Massara), a sweet, shy love interest who is boundlessly interested in Troy, and interacts with so few other characters that she begins to resemble a fevered delusion.

It’s tempting to call Hero Mode harmless. It’s a low-budget indie, and the fact that the lead actor, screenwriter, and group of people given a story credit all share a surname suggests that this may be a family project taken too far. Yet in addition to the latent sexism, unmitigated by Sorvino’s nothing of a mom role, there’s something insidious about the movie’s incompetence, and the accompanying belief that it’s good enough to entertain audiences of any age. It aspires to harmlessness, and fails.

Even its version of a valuable family-film lesson is bizarre and off-key. Remember, kids: If you happen to become the head of a company before you’ve learned anything about employee management or leadership, be sure to embrace teamwork. Or maybe the real lesson is that sometimes adults in positions of power can make decisions just as dumb as the average kid.

Hero Mode is currently in limited theatrical release, and arrives on VOD on June 11.

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