(2010) Family Drama (MPower) Bobby Coleman, Josh Flitter, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christian Martyn, Doug E. Doug, Demi Petersen, Beverley Mitchell, Jennifer Klekas, Carolina Andrus. Directed by Robert Kirbyson
There are those who believe that the greatest tragedy in life is a life unrealized. We all yearn to make a mark, to accomplish something that will live on long after we’re gone. However, it is admittedly rare for a ten-year-old to think about such things.
Then again, there aren’t many ten-year-olds like Billy Kirkfield (Coleman). Billy loves the snow; loves to build snow forts, snow men and throw snowballs at his friends, and in Silver Lake, Colorado, there is plenty of snow to go around. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t have a lot of friends. Many of them distanced themselves from him when Billy got cancer. His hair still hasn’t grown back from the chemotherapy, so he wears a wool cap wherever he goes.
When Howard Garvey (Thompson) moves in next door from Jamaica, it turns out to be quite a culture shock for the both of them but they instantly bond over – what else – snowballs. Howard becomes the third member of the outsiders at school, the severely put-upon and timid Lucas (Martyn) being the third. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that Lucas’ last name is Lamb. The three bond when they discover the body of an 87 year old man in the snowdrift they’re building their snow fort in.
But this is no Stand By Me. The appearance of the dead guy forces Billy to confront his own pending mortality. It appears the cancer has reappeared – nobody is telling him straight out, but his parents have been more affectionate than usual and the hospital is calling every day. Billy knows he doesn’t have long, and he wants to leave a lasting mark before he goes. After some thought and a few less-than-successful attempts at doing something cool, Billy hits upon the idea of setting a world record for most snowmen built in 24 hours.
There are plenty of issues standing in his way, including a vicious bully (Flitter), a less than enthusiastic principal (Mitchell) and his somewhat distant Dad (Liotta), who is trying to pay off the medical bills, run his used car dealership and find some time for his son. Billy is playing his “dying kid” card like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, but he doesn’t know how long he has – and the odds are steep against him.
This could easily have been one of those made for Nickelodeon movies in which the kids are smarter than the adults and are plucky and resourceful without breaking a sweat. These kids are far from perfect; their greatest asset is their willingness to take their dream as far as it can take them.
Coleman reminded me a little bit of Sean Astin in The Goonies – not so much facially, but in his enthusiasm and leadership. Not that the two movies are similar – only that the two leads have a lot of similar characteristics, especially in terms of their heart and drive. Coleman also does a good job conveying the anguish he feels when his hat is torn off of him by Jason, exposing his bald head for all to see.
Liotta plays a bit of a cartoon used car salesman with outrageous commercials and a penchant for endless self-promotion, but at the end of the day he’s a good dad, wracked with guilt over what his son is forced to go through. It’s a marvelously affecting performance and reminds us that Liotta can be as good an actor as anyone in the business.
Also of note is a cameo by Christopher Lloyd as the caretaker of the cemetery where the old man whose body the boys found is buried. While the part essentially exists to get the filmmaker’s life lesson across, Lloyd handles it with dignity and surprising restraint. While we all know him for the Reverend Jim on TV and Doc Brown in the movies, he doesn’t necessarily have to overplay to be memorable.
I liked that the movie wasn’t so much a formula family movie, although there were some moments that left me groaning inside (how did Howard, who could barely stand on his skates and on the way across the pond “only” fell tweve times, suddenly turn into a speed skater near the end of the movie for example). However, it’s kind of rare for a family film these days to be thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult issues. Too many films in this genre dumb themselves down and go for really lowbrow laughs and to my mind, refuse to respect the intelligence of their audience. Kids may be inexperienced and lack sophistication but that doesn’t make them morons and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t treat them that way. Here is a family movie worth seeing that wasn’t made by Pixar – now there’s a mark worth leaving behind.
REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming without being sickly sweet, with some fine performances from the young actors.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a couple of moments that nearly jump the shark.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children and there is a scene near the end that might be too intense for younger kids but perfectly fine for kids ten and up – and a good jumping-off point for a dialogue about death for kids who may have experienced the loss of a loved one or a friend.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film, which was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was based on Kirbyson’s experiences growing up in Winnipeg.
HOME OR THEATER: If you can see it in a theater, by all means do – however, chances are you’ll have to wait for a home video release.
FINAL RATING: 7/10