Film reviews and more since 2009

Snack Shack (2024) review

Dir. Alex Carter Rehmeier

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

It’s 1991 in Nebraska City, and the entire summer is in front of lifelong friends A.J. (newcomer Conor Sherry) and Moose (Gabriel LaBelle, The Fabelmans). The two have things pretty well mapped out. When they’re not hitching rides across the Iowa state-line to bet at the off-track, they’re making and selling homemade hooch (despite only being 14-years-old). When A.J.’s parents (Gillian Vigman and David Costabile) give their son an ultimatum about finding a job, a unique opportunity presents itself.

Enter the boys’ college-bound friend, Shane (Nick Robinson, Love, Simon), who works as a lifeguard at the local pool. He proposes the two put in a bid for the adjacent “Snack Shack” at the city council meeting. A handful of schemes, an overestimated $3,000 in cash, and a drained savings account later and A.J. and Moose secure their slice of paradise. A.J. works on cleaning up the messy shack while Moose secures hot dog, soda, and ice cream vendors. In no time, they have a low-key cash cow on their hands.

Just as they’re going beyond breaking even to earning serious cash, Brooke (Mika Abdalla, CW’s The Flash) comes into their lives. She’s the cousin of A.J.’s neighbor, whose nomadic family has set up shop in Nebraska City for the summer. A.J. helps her secure a lifeguard gig at the pool while his crush on the new girl unsubtly grows. Moose also takes a liking to Brooke, with their dueling pubescent affections threatening to come between their entrepreneurial venture and their friendship.

Adam Carter Rehmeier’s Snack Shack oozes with charm and lovingly illustrated characters. This is a comedy that mixes broad, vulgar humor with more subtle brushstrokes of wit. The film reminded me a great deal of The Way, Way Back from over 10 years ago, another film that used the setting of the neighborhood pool as the breeding ground for friendship, hormones, and other integral elements of coming-of-age stories.

Writer/director Rehmeier knows it’s the heart of the characters that makes the comedy stronger. His screenplay works hard to develop the external and internal emotions of his characters, with Sherry and LaBelle revealing their characters to be more than just two foul-mouthed young men. They are ambitious and street-smart for their age. Furthermore, Mika Abdalla’s Brooke isn’t a villain. She appears slightly older than her male counterparts, but she is also a person with her own aspirations. Even if her intentions aren’t always clear, and admittedly hurtful (to A.J. specifically), we’re led to believe it’s more of a product of her subconsciously knowing she won’t be in Nebraska City for very long.

However, the performance of the hour comes from Nick Robinson, who has been acting in teen films long enough that he’s now effectively old enough to play the wise big brother figure to a couple of kids who were, you could say, “just like him” in other movies. Robinson’s words and actions are deeply felt, and he exudes that natural coolness that makes everyone, even A.J.’s parents, gravitate towards him.

Speaking of A.J.’s folks, Rehmeier doesn’t settle for making them empty parental archetypes. Vigman and Costabile get their own brand of deadpan comedy with which to work. There’s a scene over dinner where A.J.’s parents tell their son that they want him home at a certain time. When A.J. balks, Vigman and Costabile launch into an auctioneer-style back-and-forth, only the time they want A.J. back starts getting earlier and earlier. It’s a fun little bit of spontaneity. Conversely, sometimes they don’t even need to say anything. The confused looks on their faces when watching A.J.’s sister (June Gentry) do her dance routine to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” offer more humor than words.

One aspect the film doesn’t quite land is the ending. It’s preceded by an impressively emotional third act that reminds you how effectively drawn these characters are, given the impact I expect it to have on many viewers. Without revealing too much, A.J. has a denouement with most of the film’s major players, with the surprising exception of Moose. One could argue that it comes earlier than the two separate scenes that follow it, but it really should’ve come at the tail-end. There is also a boldly missed opportunity to tie the “Snack Shack” name to a specific individual, one that would’ve resonated and spelled more clarity for the future of A.J. and Moose’s friendship.

Rehmeier — who shot the film on-location in Nebraska City based on his experiences running the very same shack at the very same pool — develops the characters and the setting lovingly. Two scenes, one in a Fareway parking lot and one inside said grocery store, are among the most delightful bits of Midwestern representation I’ve seen since American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. In an empty comedy, it wouldn’t have mattered. In a film as poignant and pointedly funny as Snack Shack, it has staying power, like the film itself.

NOTE Snack Shack is now playing exclusively in theaters, and will receive a streaming release on Paramount+ in April 2024.

NOTE II: Take a listen to my interview with Snack Shack star Mika Abdalla below!

Starring: Conor Sherry, Gabriel LaBelle, Mika Abdalla, Nick Robinson, Gillian Vigman, David Costabile, June Gentry, April Clark. Directed by: Adam Carter Rehmeier.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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