Gossip Girl and The O.C., the two teen TV shows created in the past decade by 36-year-old Josh Schwartz, are sly bait-and-switches. Both are easily marketable for their hot (mess) fashion-plate stars, wide-eyed luxury fetishism, soapy season arcs, and savvy self-reference, but both are also, at heart, deeply old-fashioned in the primacy they put on the family. Teens and grownups alike (parents, rich with flaws and desires, are always treated as people, too) drift away from the home and into sometimes unsavory situations in order to learn lessons that reaffirm their priorities and those of the shows: Again and again, gatherings of multiple generations around the breakfast table are held up as the modern utopian ideal.
Fun Size, which Schwartz directed and produced from a screenplay by Max Werner, lacks both the glossy finish of his prime-time serials — the setting is unglamorous suburban Cleveland; the dress code is bargain-store Halloween chic — and the razor-sharpness of the dialogue. (The script does include a wide range of casual cultural references, from The Mikado to Lil' Wayne.) But the fundamental Schwartz touch applies: In the guise of a narrowly targeted tween flick, he has delivered a smart and emotionally satisfying slice of wish fulfillment, tracing how a threatened family finds harmony.
Played by recovering Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice, whose coltish stature and wide-featured beauty recalls a graphic novel rendition of Winnie Cooper, Wren is a senior with her sights set on skipping town for NYU, the alma mater of her beloved, recently deceased dad, whose Def Jam track jacket has become Wren's security blanket. The loss of the family patriarch has thrown Wren's widowed mom, Joy (Chelsea Handler), and butterball little brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) into a kind of temporary insanity; the latter has become a mute prankster, while the former is dating a 26-year-old. Wren is invited to a Halloween bash by the school's "god/stud/legend," but Joy has evening plans with her boy toy, forcing the teen to patrol her gluttonous little brother's night of trick or treating. When Wren loses Albert in a haunted house, Roosevelt (Thomas Mann), a debate captain with a long-harbored crush, agrees to chauffeur the search party. Cruising, bruising, first kisses, and life lessons follow.
Schwartz has never directed before, for the big screen or small, and here he's tasked with the challenge of splitting the demographic difference between 8- and 18-year-olds. His sight gags fail (a naked child on a toilet) as often as they succeed. (A sequence in which Albert dominates a disco floor has LOLs for the whole family.) The influence of John Hughes movies is felt everywhere, from the one-night-in-the-suburbs structure to the film's depiction of nerds as "unlikely" studs, and like its inspirations, Fun Size revolves around what is in essence an allegorical battle for the family's soul: Will they get suckered by the temptation to be shallow or stand proud as the imperfect but lovable freaks that they are? The presiding spirit is that of the Beastie Boys song that plays at a crucial moment: "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," a raunchy yet innocent celebration of ultimately harmless rebellion and a throwback to a previous generation that still holds up.