Prior to attending “Shovel Buddies” at SXSW, I thought the most creative use of the song “I’m on Fire” (Bruce Springsteen) might have been the month my AC went out at work. After trying to get the landlord to fix the air conditioning at 1035 Lincoln Road in a timely fashion, we began dedicating songs to the realty company on a popular radio station: “Great Balls of Fire.” “Hot Time in the City.” “Summer in the City.” “I’m on Fire.” It worked. They finally fixed the air conditioning, (although I’m convinced they were sending the missing part by pack animal, since it took so long, and we had pretty much exhausted our “hot” songs repertoire by the time the landlords got on it).
But now I’ve seen the new film “Shovel Buddies” at SXSW and, as the credits roll, the song is heard again, played over a scene at a construction site where 3 teenagers and one boy’s younger brother, Lump (Anton Starkman) are seated, covered in cement, having just weighted down a body and thrown their dead classmate into wet cement.
“Wait!” you’re saying. “What’s this about a dead classmate and wet cement?”
Sammy Hanes (Philip Labes) has died of cancer at a young age. He’s a high schooler and the film opens at his funeral, with his best friends, Jimmy (Alex Neustaedter) and Daniel (Kian Lawley) at the visitation. Jimmy is also in charge of his younger brother, Lump, since his parents are out of town, and both boys lust after the dead boy’s sister, Kate (Bella Thorne).
Daniel seems to be a bit of a dick, saying things to his friend, Jimmy, like, “It’s gonna’ be okay.”
“How do you know?”
“People keep saying it,” is the response, at which point Dan, stuffing his mouth with potato chips that are situated quite near the coffin, says, “Welcome to the rest of your life.”
Bella Thorne as the dead boy’s grieving sister (“I couldn’t find something to wear that said, ‘Sad, not broken.’”) refers to Daniel as “Captain Obvious” at one point; that line scripted by Jason Mark Hellerman brought a chuckle, anyway, although Daniel’s eulogy later was ill-advised.
The plot quickly turns into a “Weekend with Bernie”-like escapade that had theater patrons outside the Alamo Drafthouse on Slaughter Lane in Austin (TX) saying, “Wait: how long is it before rigor mortis sets in?”
Not a question you hear every day, but one that is relevant to this film, if the quartet is going to honor a Snapchat Last Will & Testament wish from their dead buddy Sammy. Sammy wants to be buried in his favorite high school athletic jersey (which is conveniently framed on the wall of his bedroom.) When the two friends (Jimmy and Daniel) tell Sammy’s parents that their son really wanted to be buried in his jersey, the parents are not helpful or accepting and, in fact, they are resentful that the request was not made to them directly. Instead, Sammy is to be cremated the next day. (Keep that 2 to 6 hr. rigor mortis fact uppermost in your mind at this point.)
This sets up the plot, which involves Jimmy leading the charge to get the jersey onto Sammy’s dead body before he is toast. As more than one astute movie-goer was heard to say following the film, “How long IS it before rigor mortis sets in?”
The answer? 2 to 6 hours. And it starts with the eyelids, jaw and neck, usually, just to give you a nice visual that isn’t in the movie.
Basically, from that point on, the plot has problems, because no way would the boys have been able to dress Sammy with ease and cart him around from place to place like a sack of potatoes, at times in the back of Jimmy’s parents’ car (which is ultimately totaled) and at other times just slung over their shoulders (“like a Continental soldier,” as the old song lyric went).
The title “Shovel Buddies” refers to the clean-up of Sammy’s room that the 2 fast friends undertake, removing incriminating items from Sammy’s computer, as well as girlie magazines, drugs and anything else he wouldn’t want his parents to find (Sammy’s father is a cop).

From that point on, the movie is about keeping promises and focuses on the way(s) in which Jimmy—who is initially thought to be the “good guy” in the cast—treats both his brother (Lump) and Sammy’s sister, Kate (Bella Thorne). Daniel just remains a dick. (Once a dick, always a dick.)
The movie was directed by Simon Atkinson and Adam Townley (as Si & Ad) and the 85-minute film moves along pretty smoothly, including the denouement at the recently demolished high school that is giving way to a new football stadium.
James C. Burns, actor/cinematographer, does a respectable job playing Sammy’s father, although his ultimate decisions regarding his son’s final resting place might draw some flak from the Mrs., if she were ever informed.
This was a World Premiere and the 85 minutes passed quickly, with original music by Germaine Franco (which got inexplicably LOUD at one point in the film), adequate (if inscrutable) acting by all the leads, good cinematography and editing, and an interesting premise.
The crowd outside was still asking those pesky technical questions that viewers of 1989’s “Weekend at Bernie’s” probably never asked, and the use of Snapchat and text messaging convinced me I’m definitely Old School and unlikely to get with the 2016 program any time soon, but the film, shot in California (Culver City, Santa Monica) had its moments, although the Final Words spoken by Daniel (“Sammy liked his drinks to be like his dick: stiff” and “Sammy knew the inherent beauty of a naked woman” might have been better left unsaid.)
Still, not a bad movie, start to finish, for a first film, with enough interesting things going on and enough interesting characters to keep you watching: good pacing, good acting and fine cinematography/editing. For a first film, a good start.