Engaging characters and evocative period detail cannot overcome the uh-oh factors that ultimately overwhelm this coming-of-age story set in the 1970’s and written and directed by actor David Duchovney.
Movies that start with voice-overs as adults recall the year when everything changed are one uh-oh factor, especially if we find out right from the beginning that our narrator wanted to become a writer or an artist. Sometimes films that begin that way work very well, but more often they are self-indulgent. A more reliable red flag is either a minority or a disabled person who shares wisdom with the main character and passes on life lessons. This film has both, with Erykah Badu as an angry prisoner in solitary confinement and Robin Williams with big fake teeth as a janitor/deliveryman who is called, in the language of the era it depicts, “retarded.” As with many first films, it is cluttered and overly plotted and at the same time too much is too easily resolved. As worthy and sincere an effort as it is, it would take a much better script to overcome all of that.
This is the story of Tommy (Anton Yelchin), about to turn 13. He is still mourning the loss of his father from cancer and making clumsy efforts to comfort his mother, a nurse (Tea Leoni). His best friend is Pappass (Williams), the school’s assistant janitor. They deliver food for the local market, which gives them a chance to explore and laugh at the world together — and to save money together for what they both think is the coolest item on earth, a beautiful green bicycle.
But, this is one of those “Puff the Magic Dragon” movies, and Tommy/Little Jackie Paper is going to have to come of age by beginning to outgrow his friend. That means girls, one in particular, but it also means growing into a greater understanding of the complexity of people and their differences and motivations. He catches the attention of a woman in the local jail (they call it the “House of D” for “detention”) and she gives him advice on getting close to the girl he likes. It works, and Papass is anxious and angry at being left behind. He makes a bad mistake and Thomas feels responsible, with tragic results.
Parents should know that the film has very strong language for a PG-13, including middle-school insults concerning physical developments during puberty. The young characters have the preoccupation with sex that is typical of that age. There is some kissing and a tender, apparently non-sexual long hug while lying down. Some of the residents of the “House of D” are prostitutes and one says she murdered someone. A character chain-smokes, another abuses alcohol, another asks for marijuana, and another overdoses on prescription pills. There are tense and disturbing confrontations and [spoiler alert] a character removes someone from life support.
Families who see this movie should talk about who Thomas could have talked to about his problems, either at the time or after he grew up and about why he thought it was impossible. How did his inability to tell the truth about himself affect his relationship with his wife and son? Why was the Lady’s advice important to him? Do you agree with the decision Thomas made about Pappass?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Charly, with an Oscar-winning performance by Cliff Robertson, and an underrated gem, The Reivers, with Steve McQueen, based on a novella by William Faulkner.