Weird Kidz

Zack Passero started thinking about The Weird Kidz, his new animated horror-comedy coming-of-age film, when he and his wife were expecting their first child.

“My wife and I found out we were gonna be having a kid about eight or nine years ago, and it made me really nostalgic for how I grew up and what my life was like, and how I’d explain my childhood to this new little being that was coming into our lives,” he explained after a jubilant late-night screening Saturday of The Weird Kidz at the El Paso Film Festival.

“And it suddenly sparked this thing — I started to get excited again, remembering the things that made me want to become a filmmaker: the the friends, the influences, the movies. And the story just came together. And that also reminded me that since I was little, I’d always wanted to make an animated feature film.”

He had always romanticized films by solo animators who spent months or years laboring over their frames. And so he began working on The Weird Kidz, often in the small hours between 2 and 6 a.m., when he could find time away from his job as an editor. He and his wife, Hannah Passero, had worked together on animated shorts, and she hand-painted the images he created on a tablet.

Given their growing family, they had to be patient: The film ultimately took eight years.

“But it was a constant joy in my life. It became a meditation, and I just really looked forward to animating everyday,” Passero said.

The Weird Kids is a very fun, strange hybrid: It’s about a group of 12-year-old boys including Dug (voiced by Tess Passero, Zach Passero’s sister) who go on an overnight camping trip with Dug’s older brother, Wyatt (Ellar Coltrane), and his girlfriend, Mary (Sydney Wharton). They’ve heard the legend of a creature called the Night Child — and soon learn that the stories are very real.

The Weird Kidz

Connecting With The Weird Kidz

The Weird Kidz drew a mix of shock and laughter at Saturday night’s screening, as the raunchy, misinformed talk of kidz with lots to prove acclimated the audience to the wild elements to come.

It veers from a Richard Linklater-style hang (Coltrane is best known for starring in the Texas filmmaker’s Boyhood) into a B-movie style horror film. But impressively, it takes another confident turn by handling its horrific elements with surprising empathy and gentleness, aside from the odd detached limb.

The film never establishes exactly when it takes place, but if you grew up in the 1980s — or wish you did — you’ll get weird-kid feelings at the mostly extinct sights of boxy video-game consoles and newsstand centerfolds. It reminded me of classic kid-focused ’80s movies like The Goonies and Stand By Me, as well as more grown-up adventures like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I can’t really compare the animation to anything: It is unfussy and painterly at the same time, at times charming and at other times delightfully shocking. The overall effect is hallucinatory beauty.

Passero noted that he was able to streamline the process of hand-drawing all the images by thinking like an editor about how he could cut down scenes — essentially editing the movie in his head to minimize the amount of time he spent in an editing bay.

The film has had a very successful festival run, but Saturday’s showing was special: Passero is an El Paso local, and the team’s producers include El Paso filmmakers Lucky McKee, known for directing the recent Old Man and an episode of Poker Face, and Charles Horak, a champion of El Paso film who hosts a wide range of filmmakers at a spectacular converted warehouse at the edge of downtown.

Horak noted that there’s a moment in every screening of The Weird Kidz when the audience locks into its pleasantly peculiar sensibility.

“Clearly as a hand-animated single endeavor, it looks different than a lot of animated films,” he said. “About 10 minutes in, this weird thing happens to me, every single time where I stop — it’s like your brain calibrates to the animation style, and then you just get sucked into the story and these characters in the arc they’re on.”

He added: “As a writer, Zach has put so much heart and soul in this film. There’s so much depth to it, and all the characters have an arc, and they go somewhere over this long night. And to me that’s what sucks you into the film — not just the the cool animation drawings…. That story from nine years ago is the backbone of this thing.”

The Weird Kidz will next screen at the Sitges Film Festival.

Main image: The Weird Kidz, by Zach Passero.