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Against All Odds: The Case for Billy/Joey (Toy Soldiers)

Title: Against All Odds
Author: irisbleufic
Spoilers: A very large one, I fear.  If you plan on seeing the film, I suggest that you view it before reading this.  You'll be none the worse for it, except that you'll know the piece of information that is the spoiler, and it's quite a big deal. If you've already seen it, great.
Email: chasingcasaubon@gmail.com


What It Is


At first glance, Toy Soldiers is little more than a B action flick that was fortunate enough to have a strong central cast to save it from complete and utter ruin.  Well, perhaps not complete: the storyline, which was adapted from a William P. Kennedy novel of the same name, is actually an improvement upon the source.  For that very reason, I won't discuss the book here.  It's out of print, much less captivating than the film, and I still can't believe I paid for it.  The film has enjoyed a new wave of publicity thanks to the fact that one of its stars, Sean Astin, hit it big in a certain fantasy blockbuster.

Toy Soldiers is set at the Regis School, an elite preparatory institution with a reputation for taking students that have been expelled from multiple others.  Billy Tepper, Astin's character, is at Regis for that very reason: he's a first-degree prankster, and his respect for authority is all but nonexistent.  He is, however, extremely likeable, and a shockingly decent guy.  His two roommates, Joey Trotta (played by Wil Wheaton) and Nicholas (called "Phil") Donoghue, are more often than not his partners in crime, which one of the film's opening scenes is quick to establish.  These three are the core of a much larger group – Jonathan ("Snuffy") Bradberry, Henry ("Hank") Giles, and Ricardo Montoya are more often than not involved in the group's various shennanigans.  In addition to being intelligent, troublemakers, and all male, the students of Regis come from elite backgrounds.  It's for this very reason that Phil is unexpectedly pulled from school; his father is a federal judge, who happens to be hearing the case of Enrique Cali, the captured father of Colombian drug-lord Luis Cali, who swears vengeance.  The day after Phil is evacuated, Cali and his troop of rag-tag terrorists take the entire school hostage – unfortunately while charismatic Dean Parker is off campus.  The next few days unravel in a heated showdown, with Parker and the F.B.I. involved on the outside while, within, Billy and his friends stage an elaborate mission to gather as much information about the terrorists as they can and convey it to their would-be rescuers.  The cost, unfortunately, is high.  I will discuss it in the next section.


Who They Are


Despite the fact that they're roomed in a triple with Phil, Billy and Joey might as well be sharing a double.  From the very first scene that they appear onscreen together, it's difficult to ignore the obvious bond that these two share.  I give credit to the amazing acting chemistry between Astin and Wheaton, but soon it becomes apparent that this isn't entirely chance: the screenwriting clearly establishes Billy and Joey as the closest kind of friends that there are, which is remarkable, given that Billy has probably been at Regis for a year or less (the film is set during fall of the gang's senior year; in fandom, we have placed Billy as new to Regis the previous fall).  Before I proceed, it's crucial to explain their family backgrounds.  We learn that Billy's parents had a bitter divorce, and that he seems to be something of a pawn in their squabbles (which possibly explains his tendency to act out, but when it comes down to it, Billy just loves to show off and show his buddies a good time in the process).  He's an only child, and so is Joey. 

Joey's family is trickier, and of much more import with regards to the plot.  Albert Trotta, Joey's father, is the head of the New Jersey mafia.  Joey hates what his father does (although I will hazard to say that hate isn't a strong enough word), and the slightest mention of such reveals the frightening temper that lurks behind his quiet, alert demeanor.  He's unexpectedly impulsive, and he rarely makes direct and extended eye contact with anyone except for Billy.  He's the artist of the group – his jeans are a fascinating patchwork maze of graffiti, as are his Chuck Taylors.  He sketches in a battered blue notebook, which he seems to take everywhere. 

Under pressure, he's fire to Billy's ice.  On the first night of terrorist occupation, when the whole group is herded into a random room with a couple of freshmen, Billy is willing to sit back with the others and wait until ransom negotiations come through.  Joey, on the other hand, is unwilling to accept the situation, and makes some shockingly reckless suggestions.  When Snuffy taunts him, the situation comes to blows, and it takes Billy to physically restrain him.  For all of Billy's restless energy, he's the patient one.  There's not a thing he wouldn't do for any one of his friends, but Joey clearly means the world to him.  I risk sounding repetitive, but the eye contact and easy physical contact are what make it.  When the lines of sight lock, there's not a moment of letting go.

What makes this all so poignant, besides the obvious?  Unfortunately, the answer is that Joey dies.  On the first day, when Cali realizes that Phil is gone, he orders one of his cohorts to go through the other boys' files.  Joey's file is one of the handful pulled because Cali recognizes the name of Albert Trotta.  During the course of the occupation, Albert sends a message to Cali's father in prison: I want my boy out of there.  Both Calis agree, as to have Don Trotta owe you a favor is a useful thing.  After Billy barely makes it back from a daring breach of the school walls in order to get the collected information to Parker, and is punished severely (think one of those pull-apart steel pointers applied repeatedly to his bare back), Joey is asked to come inside for an audience with Cali.  When Cali announces that he's being let go, Joey immediately and defiantly asks: Why?  "Because we respect your father," says Cali.  Bad move.  Joey says that he refuses to leave without his friends, and ends up being dragged from the room by a gunman, forced to walk quietly.  They almost reach the front door, but Joey's temper kicks in, and he manages to overpower the guard and steal his machine gun.  Once outside, he opens fire on the other guards patrolling the quad (where the students are permitted to stay except for hourly head-counts), only to be gunned down in front of his horrified friends.  If Hank hadn't held Billy back, he would've been killed, too, and even then, as soon as Joey falls and the fire falls silent, Billy manages to escape and dash to Joey's side.  I can't explain how affecting it is, especially after the steady unwinding of the exposition.  You feel as if you've only just glimpsed something precious, and it's suddenly taken away.  That evening, there's a scene of mourning inside the school. Billy's grief, to this day, one of the hardest things I've ever had to watch.


How We Found It


One dismal spring break nearly two years ago, when I was home on hiatus in Pennsylvania, waiting to hear back from a couple of Boston-area schools about my transfer applications, I got miserable and voluntarily fled to New England to see old friends.  jennaria played host to me for a large portion of that week; on the day of my arrival in Boston via bus from Connecticut, she said, "Hey – do you want to see a really young Sean Astin?"  And I said, what?  Why?  Just because I liked Lord of the Rings didn't mean I was going to like something else just because he was in it; I don't get attached to actors the way that most people seem to, just to characters.  No, really, she said.  I think you should watch this.  It's interesting.  Wil Wheaton's in it, too.

"Who's that?" I asked.  To this day, I'm glad I knew nothing of either of them.  I had never even heard of Sean before LOTR.

To make a long story short, watch it I did, and up until Joey was shot, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.  It was really too good to be true, and then –

"No, that's not possible.  That is not possible."  I think we even had to stop the DVD.

Later that evening, after I'd calmed down, I started wandering restlessly around the apartment.  There has to be something online, I thought.  There has to be.  Surely someone else has noticed this, and surely they've written it.  And the heartache, I can't deal with that.  Surely someone's written comfort fic.  Pre-canon.  Anything.

To make another long story short, dozens of web searches turned up nothing.

So we did something about it, and started writing.


A Fandom Is Born


Perhaps the timing was right, or perhaps we just got lucky.  With both of us writing and posting on our respective fic journals, people who had also seen the film and thought about it perked up and took notice.  Before long, we had enough readers to consider starting a community – and so, we did.  Eventually, a few other started writing, too, and even drawing.  The present body of work is small, but the fandom, amazingly, has kept everyone who came to it, and a more dedicated, creative community, I've hardly ever seen.  There are about forty people in the community, and the mailing list has nearly sixty, though it's very quiet in comparison to the community.  Even the community is quiet, and although I remain the most active writer, followed closely by jennaria, I'm amazed at the group's tenacity.  It's not just the little fandom that could, it's the little fandom that did. I hope it will survive, because these boys deserve it.


Community & Fiction


billyjoeyslash – Fiction is generally posted here, and the backlog of entries isn't so many that you can't go back and read them all.

ToySoldierSlash Mailing List – YahooGroups counterpart to the community, but all of the action is on LJ.  About the only things that are ever posted on the list are fiction updates, but every once in a while someone will make an introductory post or ask a question.

The following is a sort of mini-directory, which I hope will give a good representative sample of what's currently being written:

* The Series, which I never gave a proper name.  The first story, Stereotypical, was my first attempt at writing them, and I was nervous enough that I didn't expect it to go anywhere.  As is the way of things, I couldn't let go, and before I knew it, it bloomed into a full-scale worldbuilding project.  I've written some smaller sets and one-off pieces over time (which can also be found on irisbleufic, which is my fiction journal, and on the community), but this has been my fannish life's work for nearly two years now.  Each story has the next part linked at its end, so all you have to do is follow through.  The last installment, Book of Hours, is now completed.

* Heart to Heart and its follow-up, Step by Step, by jennaria.  These are her most recent pieces, and they're two of her very best.  Where I decided to tackle the issue of time from start to finish, she decided to focus her energy on scattered moments and exchanges.  On the whole, we've struck an excellent balance, and she, too, has written other pieces (which are likewise on her fiction journal, karolja, and linked on the community).

* Finishing Touches, by perian.  It's her only piece so far, but it remains by and far one of my favorites.  She manages to capture the playfulness of the relationship and the spirit of Billy's pranks, and entwines the two beautifully.  Short, sweet, and hilarious.  It saddens me that she never wrote any more, but as fandoms go, she's a busy girl!

* As Things Are, by lelise.  She showed up not all that long ago, it seems like, with her quiet, unassuming demeanor and incredible character insight.  This is one of only two separate pieces that she's written, but it absolutely shines.

(It goes without saying: if even one person reading this falls in with us, we'll be absolutely thrilled!)

Comments

Yes, count me in! I watched this movie for the first time shortly after it came out, and I'd forgotten it, but reading your essay made me remember, and made me realize how right you are about those two.
Welcome to the fandom, then! The community (billyjoeyslash) is small, but surprisingly, consistently active over the five years it's now been in existence. I actually had to modify and re-post this essay due to some of those links having been badly out of date!
I actually saw this movie long before LotR (my mom turned me onto it, believe it or not), and Billy/Joey always stood out to me, especially with the heartbreaking conclusion. Excellent essay!
I saw this after I saw LOTR - so I knew who Sean was very well, but I had never heard of Wil Wheaton in my life. So my commentary the first time watching was: who is that? I'm really fascinated by him, who the hell is that? Joey was definitely the first character to pull me in, and God, what a catastrophe that was. I remember making jennaria stop the film at that point, which is when my monologue went from "Who is that?" and "Oh my God" to "He's okay, right? You've got to tell me he's okay..."
Watching Billy cry is, to this day, one of the hardest things I've ever had to watch.
Yup. It still breaks my heart thinking about years after I've seen the movie the last time. My vcr ate the tape in, oh, 2002 I think, and €36 for the dvd is too much for poor old me.

Edited at 2008-04-17 07:19 pm (UTC)
Thirty-six euros for the DVD? That's insane. I'm sorry they make it so difficult for you to get it!
As always Im late on joining in Fandom. I love Toy Soldiers since I was 11 or so, but truth to be told Im a new Billy/Joey shipper. I think nobodie is writing fanfiction anymore but Im happy with the rec fic list. Amazing manifiesto.
Carrying on from the response I just wrote you over on AO3, you're right: it's a tiny fandom, and the activity heyday was very much 2003 through about 2005. However, I do occasionally write shorter ficlets involving Billy and Joey when people request them. I've written a lot of Toy Soldiers fic; there's the Series/BoH, which I've mentioned, but really to get all of it, even the stand-alones and shorter ones, you'd just want to visit this link at my LJ and keep hitting the "go: later" link at the bottom...that'll take you from my very earliest TS posts through to the very latest ones. I really should make up a directory post one of these days for easier navigation, as the only fandom in which I've written more material than TS is Good Omens, and I've done a directory for that fandom here.
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