Movie spoilers follow.
For those disappointed with today’s movie scene, Stock, Aitken, and Waterman’s 1987 classic Too Shy to Say It is a welcome alternative to 2010’s light-as-popcorn fare. The stylized sci-fi flick is set in a dystopian future where people of any age may be selected for medical experimentation, much like being selected for jury duty. Originally meant to accelerate the life-saving work of the overstressed biomedical industry, the program was slowly co-opted by radical eugenicists who made a living out of convincing researchers to request “abnormal” patients – anyone that deviated too much from their standard.
By the time Too Shy opens, multigenerational medical research has also been legalized, the lawmakers’ consciences quieted after being told that children born into research compounds would have no “better” life to miss. The protagonist, a red-headed boy named Richard, is one such child.
The movie begins with a flash-forward of Richard as a young adult, singing a lullaby that the researchers taught the children to make them love staying at the compound and keep them obedient to the adults. The simple chorus recasts the lab as a maternal figure, one the child promises never to leave or make sad. Even as Richard’s backstory is revealed, and even as we see him grow up and realize what is really happening to him, he never quite stops believing the words of the song.
The director uses near-constant echoes of the lullaby to knit together much of the movie. From the wake-up call caused by a friend’s failed escape attempt to his decision to get his tell-tale red hair lasered off so he could try to escape himself, Richard constantly struggles with fears that he is deserting the compound, his friend, or even his hair. The most famous scene of the movie, which appears in the initial flash-forward and again at the very end, features Richard weaving the lullaby in with a sing-song monologue to his hair. “We’ve known each other for so long,” he says, as he ponders whether he will go through with the hair removal. Years of psychological reprogramming cause him to personify his hair, and he credits it with giving him the idea on how to escape. “Your heart’s been aching, but you’re too shy to say it. Inside we both know what’s been going on; we know the game, and we’re gonna play it.”
Unfortunately, Richard’s mind and body are too damaged by his life as a lab rat for him to go through with the plan. As his body fails, his mind clings to wilder and wilder hallucinations: of frantically dancing with the rest of the eye research ward, of his friend throwing himself against the chain-link fence surrounding the compound, of imaginary backup singers as he fades away, still clinging to the lullaby. “Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.”
As a social commentary, Too Shy covers well-trodden ground, but the director makes sure to focus on the personal aspect of the story. Rather than trying to prove a stale point about ethics or politics, the movie follows Richard’s journey from a little boy who thinks he is safe and happy, to a young man who knows too much about his world to be so carefree. Ignorance, Too Shy explains, is sometimes the only way to bliss.