There’s something about fantasy and horror that simultaneously repels and attracts the young; it could be peering into the unknown, perhaps it’s something that is “taboo,” or maybe they’re simply drawn to the weird and unexplainable. This last point would certainly explain the devoted cult that surrounds The Peanut Butter Solution (1985), a Canadian film that plays the odd as matter of fact instead of something to cower from. A good lesson to be sure, and one that Severin Films knows all too well. And with this, their first release under the Severin Kids banner, they’re tapping into a particular vein that adults will enjoy as well. Strange is strange, no matter your age.
The brainchild of French Canadian producer Rock Demers, TPBS was the second in his series of films entitled Tales for All, a group of family orientated movies, some of whose popularity reached farther than the Great White North. TPBS certainly had a life, as HBO picked it up and ran it continuously in the mid ’80s, traumatizing youth on both sides of the border.
Perhaps "traumatizing" is too strong a word, and yet I’ve heard a few anecdotes from those who watched it religiously at the time and they swear it crept them out. Fair enough. There is enough bad juju floating throughout The Peanut Butter Solution to give youngsters a wicked dream or two.
Eleven-year-old Michael (Mathew Mackay – Habitat) is no different than any other boy on the cusp of adolescence; babied and bugged by his older sister Suzie (Alison Darcy – The Sum of All Fears), staying out of the way of a frazzled artist father (Michael Hogan – Battlestar Galactica) just trying to keep the family together while mom is overseas, and playing soccer with his best friend Conrad, aka Connie (Siluck Saysanasy – Degrassi High). When a house occupied by a homeless couple that Michael was nice to burns to the ground with no survivors, he and Connie decide to check it out. Michael peers inside, screams, hits his head on the ground and lays unconscious.
When he comes to, he has no recollection of what he saw, and as he rises the next morning, he’s greeted by something even worse: he’s completely bald. A wig doesn’t help, and soon Michael is left in a great big funk as to his misfortune. A late-night visit in the kitchen, though, brings some hope: the two homeless people are now ghosts, and they show Michael a concoction that will grow his hair back, with the normal caveat of not using too much, lest the growth runs amok.
Lo and behold, Michael’s hair does grow back, at an alarming rate; it grows so fast that Connie has to cut it in class constantly. (Connie decides to speed up the puberty process and smear some on his nether regions, to hilarious results.) When the evil art teacher Signor (Michel Maillot – Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia) is fired, he kidnaps Michael and several other children and opens up a secret paintbrush factory with Michael’s hair, which has magical powers. Can Connie and Suzie stop Signor, and rescue Michael and the other children?
The Peanut Butter Solution isn’t exactly dark; there’s a sense of whimsy that permeates the film, rendering it a little lighter than say, Willy Wonka. (There’s a clearer delineation between good and evil here. Perhaps less sophisticated, but still effective.) But there are certainly moments of pathos, as Michael deals with his hair loss in a realistic way, his shame and anger playing well and truthful; this could possibly have struck a nerve with the young, especially those with an empathetic streak. Seeing someone lose something as monumental as body hair definitely registers on a traumatic level.
Conversely, the growth of the hair could be a cause of even greater unsettlement: the looming specter of puberty. Anyone who’s gone through adolescence can testify to the horrifying nature of biology; bones stretch and moan, and the body tries to resist, but simply can’t. A terrifying time to be sure, and the grossly comical imagery highlights the inevitability of change in a supremely nonchalant, Canadian way.
After all, this is a spectacular set of circumstances that outside of the realm of fantasy would be horrifying. Unstoppable hair growth? Underground child labor? Ghosts with special recipes? All are treated matter-of-factly, not to lessen the impact, but to highlight the absurdity—as all good fantasy does. Director Michael Rubbo (Vincent and Me) helps by letting the material speak for itself without any flashy adornment; his cast of young and old finds the proper tone for the work as well. The Peanut Butter Solution offers unease, laughs, and adventure as only the very best children’s tales can.
For their inaugural journey, Severin Kids has loaded this disc with plenty for children of all ages to dig in to:
I haven’t heard the audio commentary with Demers and Mackay yet, but the interviews with Demers and Saysanasy are fun and informative, especially Demers; his reputation as the King of Canadian Kids’ Flicks remains untouched, and all the more power to him.
For any filmgoer who wishes to take a trip through an alternately terrifying and amusing universe of pubescent foible, The Peanut Butter Solution is a more than effective exercise in the oddity that is adolescence. Oh, and fair warning: there are two songs by a pre-fame Celine Dion scarier than anything on screen.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5