Review: ‘Hero Mode,’ starring Chris Carpenter, Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin and Indiana Massara

June 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Carpenter and Philip Solomon in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hero Mode”

Directed by A.J. Tesler

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Hero Mode” features a predominantly white cast of a characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old computer whiz thinks he can save his mother’s video game company from financial ruin by developing a computer video game that he expects to be a hit, but he experiences skepticism and obstacles from some adults.

Culture Audience: “Hero Mode” will appeal primarily to people who like lightweight and predictable family comedies and don’t mind if the jokes and some of the acting are substandard.

Pictured in front row: Sean Astin, Monte Markham, Philip Solomon, Kimia Behpoornia, Mira Sorvino and Mary Lynn Rajskub in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

The family film “Hero Mode” is stuck in one mode: low-quality. This poorly written, predictable movie about a computer gaming whiz has an uneven tone that stumbles back and forth, from cringeworthy comedy to sappy melodrama. Even though some of the cast members seem to be trying very hard to do their best to bring some charisma, it’s not enough to save this amateurish movie. The film’s protagonist is supposed to be wildly imaginative. It’s too bad this movie isn’t.

Directed by A.J. Tesler and written by Jeff Carpenter, “Hero Mode” starts off looking like it’s going to have a madcap pace throughout the entire film. The characters trade fast-talking one-liners. The camera and the editing move quickly from scene to scene, as if “Hero Mode” is a movie for people with a short attention span.

But somewhere in the middle of this movie (which is supposed to be a comedy), the pace slows down considerably so that it resembles a run-of-the-mill, teen-oriented drama. It’s almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on which pace to have for “Hero Mode”: hyper or regular. And the end result is a movie in search of a clear identity and competent direction.

The plot of “Hero Mode” tells viewers from the beginning that this movie requires a lot of suspension of disbelief: A 16-year-old boy, who’s described as having “genius-level” computer skills, is supposed to come up with a computer video game in 30 days that will save his mother’s computer game company from going out of business. And he doesn’t just have to develop the game for beta testing. It has to be ready to market and sell at an upcoming video game convention.

People who’ve seen enough of these formulaic movies know exactly how these movies are going to end. And so, that leaves the writing, acting and directing to deliver something clever to outweigh the tedium of having an unsurprising story. Unfortunately, “Hero Mode” comes up short on almost every level. “Hero Mode” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, also has a lot of outdated jokes that might have worked in the 1990s, but not now.

This is one of those movies that exists because two parents—”Hero Mode” screenwriter Jeff Carpenter and his wife Mary Carpenter, one of the “Hero Mode” producers—made this film so that their son could star in it. It literally says so in the “Hero Mode” production notes: “They [Jeff and Mary Carpenter] knew from the beginning that 16-year-old Chris Carpenter (who had been acting in film and theater since he was 10) would play the teenage coding genius, Troy Mayfield.”

Troy Mayfield (played by Chris Carpenter) is an only child who lives with his widowed mother Kate Mayfield (played by Mira Sorvino), who is struggling to keep her independent video game company Playfield Games in business. Kate is the CEO of Playfield Games, a company that she co-founded with her husband/Troy’s father, who died when Troy was a very young child. The cause of death isn’t revealed in the movie, but there are repeated mentions that Troy’s father was a computer genius and that Troy seems to have inherited his father’s extraordinary talent with computer technology.

Troy is a typical male computer nerd in movies like this one: He’s socially awkward around girls and he doesn’t have many friends. His closest pal is Nick Williams (played by Philip Solomon), an outgoing fellow student who sometimes has a mischievous side. Nick (who seems to be an aspiring director) loves to use his phone to make videos and to upload the videos on social media.

In “Hero Mode,” an upcoming annual video game convention called Pixel Con is the most important consumer convention for the video game industry. New products are introduced at Pixel Con that can make or break a company’s profits. In an early scene in the movie, Troy and Nick talk excitedly about going to Pixel Con. Nick wants to go so he can meet girls, while Troy has a different motivation: “Nick, you know it’s not about the girls. It’s about making one great game and showing it off at Pixel Con.”

And the stakes are high for Playfield Games for this year’s Pixel Con, because the company is on the verge of financial ruin. Unbeknownst to most Playfield Games employees and Troy, the company will soon run out of operational cash. However, there’s a possibility that an angel investor can save the company. Kate is throwing an upcoming party for this investor at her house, with the company’s employees in attendance.

In the movie’s early scenes, which take place at Troy and Nick’s high school, there’s a lot of goofy comedy that eventually fades in the middle of the movie, only to pop back up again toward the end. In his 10th grade computer class, Troy is bored and frustrated because the teacher Mr. Diehl (played by Erik Griffin) is way behind the times. The class is coding a video game that looks like a primitive Pong game from the 1980s.

Suddenly, the school vice-principal, whose last name is Goodson (played by Bobby Lee), shows up in the classroom to talk to Mr. Diehl. Vice-Principal Goodson seems stressed-out about something, because he has an angry outburst at the students. Goodson then quietly mutters to Mr. Diehl that his wife has just left him.

Since Troy is a star student in the computer class, Goodson takes Troy aside. “Troy, I can honestly smell the hormones pouring out of you, and it’s nauseating,” Goodson quips. What Goodson really wants to tell Troy is that because Troy was so helpful in tutoring students in computer science, the school’s test scores went up significantly. As a reward, the school district gave the school 15 new computers.

But there’s a problem: The higher scores were too good to be true. Goodson knows it and asks Troy if he manipulated computer records to alter the scores so that they would be higher than they actually were. Troy essentially admits it, so he’s suspended from school.

Troy’s mother Kate is upset by this news, but she’s got a bigger problem to worry about: Getting the angel investor to sign the contract that will get Playfield Games out of the company’s financial hole. The investor is an elderly man named Bruce, who’s actually computer illiterate, but he wants to invest in Playfield Games because he thinks it will make him look cool to be in the video game industry.

At the house party, Playfield Games’ over-confident lead designer Jimmy (played by Sean Astin) gives Bruce a flash drive that has the beta test of a video game that will be Playfield’s next big product launch. The game is called Jack House. It’s a very 1980s-styled, boring game about a Super Mario type of carpenter character called Jack that likes to jackhammer houses. Jimmy is very proud of this game, but he’s very clueless about how badly outdated the game is. Jimmy thinks Jack House is going to be a big hit.

Because Bruce doesn’t even know how to use a flash drive, Bruce asks Troy to show him what’s on the flash drive. And so, Troy and Bruce (with Troy’s sidekick Nick also in the room) use Troy’s computer to look at this test version of Jack House. Bruce doesn’t mention that what Troy will be looking at is the game that Playfield is counting on to bring the company out of its financial dire straits.

Troy finds several mistakes (or “bugs”) in the game, and he says the game is hopelessly dumb and outdated. This negative review completely turns off Bruce from investing in Playfield. Bruce makes a hasty exit from the party without even saying goodbye. And when Kate finds out why Bruce ditched the party and changed his mind about investing in the company, Troy gets in even more trouble with his mother.

Kate goes to a bank and is told by loan manager Larry Lopes (played by Al Madrigal) that they won’t give her any more money. Out of desperation, Kate secretly meets with a corporate executive named Rick (played by Nelson Franklin), who’s the head of a larger rival company called Xodus. Kate knows that Xodous has been interested in buying Playfield Games, and she tells Rick that she’s now willing to consider selling Playfield to Xodus. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how Playfield Games can come up with a better game than Jack House.

But wait. There would be no “Hero Mode” movie if Troy was really punished. Somehow, he convinces his mother that he can come up with an even better game than Jack House, just in time to introduce this new game at Pixel Con, which is happening in 30 days. And since Troy has been suspended from school, he convinces a reluctant Kate to let him work in the Playfield Games office to get this project done by this unrealistic deadline.

Troy had been constantly begging his mother to work at Playfield, but she refused before because she thinks he’s not old enough. Later in the movie, she tells Troy: “You and your dad share the same gift, but he did not have a normal childhood. We both swore to each other that you would.” But desperate times sometimes lead to desperate decisions. And so, Kate agrees to give Troy a chance to prove that he’s the computer genius that he thinks he is.

Jimmy is extremely annoyed that this kid thinks he can outshine Jimmy in a job that Jimmy’s been doing longer than Troy has been alive. Welcome to nepotism, Jimmy. The other Playfield Games employees are also skeptical about working with an underage teenager, but they have no choice because he’s their boss’ child. These other employees aren’t as hostile to Troy as Jimmy is, but they aren’t exactly completely welcoming to Troy either.

The other Playfield staffers who are also on the project of making Troy’s video game a reality are chief financial officer Lyndon (played by Monte Markham), who is the most easygoing and practical of the group; technical lead Laura (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is often uptight and grouchy; and senior story editor Marie (played by Kimia Behpoornia), who is artistically creative but a very nervous type of person. Lyndon is the only person at the company, other than Kate, who knows about Playfield’s financial problems.

Of course, a cliché movie like “Hero Mode” has to have a love interest for the nerdy protagonist, who stereotypically falls for someone he thinks is “out of his league.” The love interest is Lyndon’s granddaughter Paige (played by Indiana Massara), who’s about the same age as Troy. Paige and Troy meet one day at the Playfield Games office because Paige goes there after school to visit her grandfather and to do homework. According to Paige, she’s temporarily living with her grandfather Troy because her parents are having marriage problems and her parents are trying to “work things out.”

It’s attraction at first sight for Troy, who now has an added incentive to come up with the next big video game that can save Playfield Games: He wants to impress Paige. By the way, Paige is an aspiring singer, so viewers can easily predict how that’s written into the movie. The original songs in “Hero Mode” are very mediocre and forgettable.

The idea that Troy comes up with for the would-be blockbuster video game is called Yort, which is is essentially a cheap “Lord of the Rings” ripoff, but Troy has named the video game after himself. (Yort isTroy spelled backwards.) Troy has all these complex world-building ideas that couldn’t reasonably be developed for a video game in less than a month. But Troy thinks he can do it.

And this is where the movie really goes downhill: Troy thinks he can do it all by himself. He orders the people on this team to go home and stay away from the office because he needs the solitude to concentrate. There’s a considerable chunk of the movie with ridiculous scenes of Troy frantically coding and working in an empty office during the day and in his bedroom at night.

Meanwhile, Jimmy becomes Troy’s biggest detractor who wants Troy to fail. But since the movie wants to make Jimmy somewhat sympathetic, it turns out that Jimmy has “daddy issues.” Jimmy’s stern and judgmental father James (played by Jim O’Heir) doesn’t think that what Jimmy does for a living is a “real job,” because Jimmy’s father thinks that Jimmy just gets paid to play video games. Troy has “daddy issues” too, because he wants to prove he’s just as good as his deceased father was.

And where is Troy’s mother Kate, the CEO of this company? Not doing much but letting Troy call the shots to get this video game ready in time for Pixel Con. With this kind of bad decision making from the CEO, it’s no wonder this company is on the verge of going out of business.

Troy’s arrogance backfires, of course. And the movie has to have this teachable moment in order to preach “There’s no ‘i’ in teamwork” in the corniest of ways. Some of the cast members of “Hero Mode” try their hardest to be likeable and funny, particularly Chris Carpenter and Solomon. The movie needed more scenes of the two of them together, because their friendship chemistry seems natural.

However, longtime actors Sorvino and Astin are doing the type of acting that’s often called “phoning it in,” because they don’t look particularly invested in playing these characters. The other cast members also turn in very generic performances. It doesn’t help that “Hero Mode” is plagued by awful screenwriting.

Astin’s Jimmy character is set up to be the villain for most of the movie, but he’s feeling how a lot of longtime employees would feel if they were shoved aside for someone with no work experience. Jimmy’s best line in the movie isn’t even very funny, and it’s a meta reference to Astin’s real-life co-starring role as hobbit character Samwise Gangee in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. In Troy’s video game Yort, which is a substandard imitation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Troy has envisioned himself as a chief wizard, similar to Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” In response, Jimmy sarcastically says about Troy, “The longer we let Gandalf lead us, the greater chance we have to lose everything.” Ho hum.

Sorvino is forced to portray someone who isn’t believable as a video game company CEO. Sorvino’s Kate character is stuck in the 1990s, complete with wearing a Nirvana T-shirt (not a bad thing) and telling stale MC Hammer jokes (a very bad thing), such as saying to Troy that the company is “too legit to quit,” while half-rapping MC Hammer’s 1991 song “2 Legit 2 Quit.” Oh, the cringe of it all.

Kate also happens to have multiple sclerosis (she uses a cane), but a tone-deaf movie like “Hero Mode” wouldn’t have a character with MS without using this disease for a gimmicky part of the story. It borders on crass exploitation, just to add melodrama to the movie. “Hero Mode” isn’t “worst of the worst” bad, but it lazily doesn’t come up with anything new that hasn’t been already been done in similar movies about underdog computer nerds.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Hero Mode” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.