Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fat Kid Rules the World (2012)

I was too heavy in high school, but I was never the Fat Kid. That’s something else.

The Fat Kid’s the kid described as ‘fat’ before he’s described as tall or short. Point him out to friends in a crowded room and you’ll identify him first by his size—before his race, his hair color, or the clothes he’s wearing. Being fat is his defining feature.

I’m glad it wasn’t mine. I’m glad I wasn’t Troy Billings: a 300-lb teenager with a stern widower for a father, an athletic younger brother, and no friends. Troy began gaining weight when his mother died. Now he slouch-walks to school, dutifully, every day; doing well in his studies—we’re told—and spending his off-hours in his room, playing online games with people he’s never seen. Soon after we meet him, he steps in front of a bus.

Troy’s tackled, and his life thus saved, by Marcus (Matt O’Leary); a sometimes guitarist who’s pretty good when he’s not high, which is not often. Good-looking, talented and charismatic, Marcus’ problems are the opposite of Troy’s—he can’t sit still, and neither can anything else in his life. The pair decide to start a band, with Troy (Jacob Wysocki) as drummer, even though Troy can’t play.

Fat Kid Rules the World is based on a YA novel of the same title, by K.L Going. I haven’t read it, but the synopses I have read sound pretty close to the film. The overweight boy’s drawn out of his shell by the drug addicted frontman, who, in turn, finds the stability he desperately needs by becoming part of the overweight boy’s family unit. Each one is completed, I suppose.

This sounds like a downer, but screenwriters Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman keep things intermittently light, usually through Marcus’ antics. He has a sense of humor, and like most free spirits, he’s charming so long as you don’t have to depend on him for anything. Troy’s more morose, but director Matthew Lillard still makes him an effective vehicle for jokes. They’re mostly flashbacks or teen-boy fantasy sequences of the Family Guy variety—one-offs that cut from the main action for a few seconds, never to be followed up upon. Troy has a good imagination.

The majority of the jokes come in the first half of the film. As Fat Kid Rules the World progresses into heavier drama, you may find yourself missing them. The movie itself seems unsure of how it’s supposed to evolve—the otherwise sharp script dips whenever Troy has to lash out about his weight, making us feel as though it’s our duty to keep regarding this now-complex character as a fat character first. In these moments our attention turns to Marcus; even though, objectively speaking, he’s not as interesting as Troy.

Fat Kid Rules the World is a film geared to tweens and teens, so what matters most is how well it speaks to them. I think their reactions will be mixed. They’ll like the humor, and the intelligent script, which never talks down to them and is blessedly free of the slang of the moment. And they may be drawn to Troy’s dad, an ex-marine played with sensitivity by Billy Campbell. Mr. Billings is a disciplinarian, but not a bully; he loves his sons unconditionally and, I believe, younger viewers will recognize the difference between a man like him and the more one-dimensional hard-asses they encounter in lesser films. Campbell’s performance is one of the movie’s great strengths; for what it’s worth, his character may be the positive example of a tough-love parent that some kids, especially those from broken homes, need to know exists.

Will they ‘believe’ in Troy, though? I’m not sure how much I did. My own high school memories are farther in the past than I care to admit, but I trust them, and the image of a totally friendless boy—seemingly so only because he’s fat and shy—rang false to me. There were loners in my high school too, but Troy’s not really weird enough to be one of those. He has regular interests. He likes girls and video games and he’s smart; he’d probably bond with a few other boys, and have the kind of fun that’s fun to them.

And about the video-game thing: I have to wonder if we’re going to see many more movies portraying committed gamers as shut-ins and losers—girls and boys who’d be better off at a rock concert or running track. The fitness level of today’s kids is a serious concern, no doubt. But portraying gaming as, at best, a past-time for the socially inept—or at worst, a waste of time altogether, is beyond tired. It’s a new day for that medium, and the kids know it.

Where to see Fat Kid Rules the World:
Fat Kid Rules the World will have its Canadian premiere at the inaugural edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Next Wave Film Festival, on May 12, at 8:30 pm, at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Matthew Lillard and Jacob Wysocki will introduce the film, and stay for a post-screening Q&A.

The TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, aimed at youth aged 14 to 18, takes place at TIFF Bell Lightbox from May 10 through May 12, 2012.

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