As we all know, the word “fan” comes from “fanatic”. As in, “religious bigots responsible for sectarian violence” or “fanatical Trump supporters blame FBI investigation into Deep State,” to paraphrase two headlines I quickly found online after Googling the term . While we’re all fans of various art and artists, the fanatic goes overboard, whether it’s hoarding a ridiculous mass of memorabilia or stalking their favorite celebrities.
The 2008 documentary I think we’re alone now profiles two music fans whose obsession with 80s teenage pop singer Tiffany led to restraining orders, psychiatric counseling, disappointment and ultimately an uneasy peace. Directed by Sean Donnelly, who recently directed the Comedy Central animated series Jeff and some aliens, it’s neither sympathetic nor critical, as we watch two middle-aged men with proven neurological and medical conditions try to get as close as possible to the fallen pop star they’ve been obsessed with since she was 16. . It is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
In case you’re under 35, or just to jog your memory, Tiffany Darwish was one of a group of teenage artists that emerged in the late 1980s selling sanitized pop music with the slightest whiff of desire and of teenage rebellion. She launched her career performing in suburban strip malls and her biggest hit was 1987’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ 60s ode to big hugs. After two multi-platinum albums, her career took a nosedive and she is now appearing in cheesy Syfy films, such as those from 2011. Mega Python vs. Gatoroid starring alongside fellow 80s teen star Debbie Gibson, and travels the nostalgic 80s circuit for aging fans who grew up on his music, or in the case of the film’s subjects, middle-aged men troubled who harbor delusional ideas about their imaginary relationships with her.
We first meet Jeff Deane Turner, a jovial fifty-something from Santa Cruz. “Tiffany and I have known each other for almost her life and we are in love with each other,” he tells us. “Oh, we kissed…no tongue.” Soon he will show us his collection of Tiffany memorabilia, fairly typical of many hardcore music lovers, but it also includes copies of the restraining order the singer filed against him, press clippings of his arrest after he attempted to give her a samurai sword and letters he sent her, all of which were returned to sender.
We then meet Kelly McCormick, who identifies as female but lived as a male until high school and says she is intersex, born with both genders. If Turner seems clumsy and weird, Kelly is desperate and intense. She says Tiffany appeared to her when she was in a coma for weeks following a serious bicycle accident in 1987, and claims to have once spent 7 hours on the phone with her. “I love him to the bone marrow,” she says.
Turner’s friends are soon introduced and we learn that he has Asperger’s syndrome, the neurological disorder that affects social interaction, often manifesting in the inability to recognize social cues and personal boundaries. Turner talks about being bullied as a child, his father’s death as a child, and how his stepfather is a “fascist.” These attempts to humanize him are contrasted with the moderator of a Tiffany newsgroup saying he is a security threat and with Turner’s own statements about the singer, which are often disparaging, critical and possessive.
McCormick recounts the disastrous effects of her parents’ divorce, where her mother treated her like a girl and her father forced her to behave like a boy. She says she was extremely popular in high school but led a miserable life as a man. She is now taking testosterone blockers and is considering transitioning to female completely. If Turner’s obsession can be explained as an effect of his Asperger syndrome, McCormick’s seems more delusional. “My fate is that I’m meant to be with Tiffany,” she said at one point, clearly distraught.
The film’s climax comes when Turner and McCormick meet in Las Vegas to attend a Tiffany concert together. Despite her previous restraining orders against him, Tiffany is now allowing Turner to attend her promotional functions, although you can see the singer’s caution as he leans in to kiss her and defers her requests to visit her hotel room. . Turner repeatedly offends McCormick, calling him “him” and trying to reinforce his obsession with Tiffany with his own stories. As Turner takes her place at the concert, McCormick seems thrilled, especially after meeting Tiffany in a meet-and-greet afterward. It’s as if she’s made a religious pilgrimage and is leaving with the divine blessing she so clearly needs. In follow-up interviews at the end of the film, it is McCormick who seems to have moved on in life and found some degree of happiness and peace.
I think we’re alone now is a compelling and complicated look at extreme fandom and dysfunction. Turner and McCormick clearly have mental health issues and both lived with disabilities at the time of filming. While I think the filmmaker’s intention was to present them without judgment or criticism, part of the film’s appeal is the “freak show” element, which is inherently exploitative. And certainly, Turner’s lack of confrontation over his behavior is uncomfortable, even if it’s related to his illness. At the end of the movie, he tells us that he and Tiffany are just friends now. His new obsession is actress Alyssa Milano, even though she wears “too much eye makeup.” Milano filed a restraining order against Turner in 2008.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter: @BHSmithNYC.
Where to stream I think we’re alone now