Warren Cantrell reviews a new indie film from the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival:
Telling a story about teenagers is difficult, for those young enough to speak honestly about the subject are rarely so mature that they can translate that experience into literature or film, and those old enough to do so are invariably too far removed from that formative period to do it any justice. A few people have pulled the trick off, however, perhaps the most notable example being the late-great John Hughes, a storyteller who seemed to have an unbroken pipeline into the most genuine recesses of youth. Actor-turned-director Matthew Lillard (Hackers, Scream, Scooby-Doo) has offered up his own treatise on late adolescence in the form of his debut directorial feature, Fat Kid Rules the World, and while it’s no Breakfast Club, its heart and sense of authenticity match up with anything Hughes ever delivered.
That said, Lillard doesn’t try to copy or emulate Hughes, a director who mostly set his films in the suburbs, and kept the tone of his work light. Fat Kid Rules the World is an adaptation of K.L. Going’s novel of the same name, and is predominantly an urban adventure. The story of an obese, suicidal teenager living in the outskirts of downtown Seattle (1st Hill, to be exact), the film follows Troy (Jacob Wysocki) as he journeys through a few difficult, formative weeks.
Troy’s world is shaken up after his suicide attempt is thwarted by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a recently-expelled high school classmate who initially targets Troy as a mark to be exploited. Socially inept and fat though he may be, Troy isn’t an idiot, and immediately clocks Marcus for what he is: a teenage waster on the fast-track toward full-time bum-hood. Yet there’s an odd, desperate charisma coursing through Marcus, and Troy can’t help but get swept up in the grifter’s universe.
Before Troy knows what’s happening, Marcus has enlisted him to play drums in their band (one created on the spot), despite the fact that Troy knows about as much about playing the drums as he does about wearing a pair of size 32 jeans. The audience learns that Troy recently lost his mother, leaving him in the exclusive care of his ex-military father (Billy Campbell), and slightly younger, far more in-shape brother, who both live with Troy at arm’s length. And while Lillard employs familiar tropes to frame his narrative (hard-ass dad, snarky brother, video-game playing dork-hero, etc.) there’s a lot of spark and creativity in his film.
As Fat Kid Rules the World develops, Troy uses his band and the drums as a creative outlet that allows him build a little self-confidence, and grow into his own skin. At a personal crossroads when the movie opens (Troy did try to kill himself, after all), the movie is ostensibly about a chubby kid taking that most daunting leap of adolescence: when one realizes that true happiness means embracing one’s self despite what the world thinks. It’s a somewhat tired and tried story to tell, yet Lillard finds a way to breathe new life into the familiar narrative, due in large part to the performances of his actors, and the authentic texture of the characters they portray.
As the star, Jacob Wysocki carries the film in an effortless fashion that leads one to believe that he’s been acting for a lifetime. His only failing is that he has to share most of the movie with Matt O’Leary (Marcus), who turns in a performance that is nothing short of inspired. Though the wardrobe and make-up department did him a lot of favors (one can practically smell Marcus through the screen), O’Leary succeeds in disappearing into the role of the pill-popping street kid sinking so fast into his own suffocating addiction that he spends most of the picture clutching at those around him like a drowning man.
O’Leary has been making a name for himself on the indie film scene recently with highly-praised work in Natural Selection, and Eden, and his stock will certainly rise with this one. Yet it’s Billy Campbell, as Troy’s father, who runs away with this film, for what could have easily been recycled into an American Beauty character-clone develops into one of the most important, dynamic characters in the piece. There’s a tender yet guarded warmth that comes through in Campbell’s performance, and it elevates the film above the somewhat cliché, predictable conclusions that follow in the movie’s wake.
Sure, there’s a romantic sub-plot that runs out of steam in the third act, and a slight shift in the film’s focus around the halfway point where Fat Kid Rules the World becomes more about Marcus, and less about the title fat kid, yet the ultimate conclusion proves to be surprisingly more than the simple sum of its parts. Filmed on-location in Seattle, the movie is also an exceptionally rare treat for residents of that city, who will notice that the picture was indeed filmed there, and not in British Columbia.
Everything from the Metro bus seat patterns to the grime-smudged benches in Pioneer Square speaks to the unmistakable Seattle experience, one made all the more familiar by musical contributions by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. Fat Kid Rules the World has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, and has found a friendly audience at the Seattle International Film Festival, where it’s currently playing.
Watching the film, it’s not surprising, either, for director Matthew Lillard took a familiar teen coming-of-age story and made it fresh: a truly difficult maneuver in an era when the most exciting industry innovations come packaged in 3-D.