Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review: "The Boys Are Back"

The thing I liked about "The Boys Are Back" is the same thing that ultimately limits it as a film: Its unstructured nature.

This drama about a single father struggling to raise two sons, each from a different marriage, unfolds organically, without the conventional three-act structure. Some notable events happen in their lives, but the bulk of the movie is spent with the threesome hanging out in their ramshackle home, getting into arguments and having some boyish fun.

It's a good movie, with a powerful performance by Clive Owen as the father, and Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay are knockouts as the sons.

Joe Warr is an English guy and sportswriter at a major Australian newspaper. His job has him gone a lot, so when his wife (Laura Fraser) passes away fairly suddenly, Joe realizes that he's become something of a stranger to their 6-year-old son Artie (McAnulty). He confides to a friend that his boy views him as a guy who visits them every few weeks and brings him presents.

Joe and Artie set out on a road trip to connect, and this morphs into a laid-back approach to parenting that eventually becomes a creed: "Just say yes." Instead of burdening his child with a lot of rules and chores, he allows the house to become a shabby playroom where they can throw water balloons, jump into full bathtubs, or do anything else they want that's irresponsible (but not unsafe).

This draws the tut-tutting of the mothers of the community, which only encourages Joe more.

The dynamic changes when Harry (MacKay), who's about 14, comes to live with them. Harry's the offspring of Joe's first family, which he abandoned when he got Artie's mother pregnant. Harry quickly adapts to the free-for-all, but as you might expect he's got some deeper-seated issues to resolve with Dad.

Director Scott Hicks ("Shine") and screenwriter Allan Cubitt, adapting the autobiographical novel by Simon Carr, adopt the boys-will-be-boys attitude of the protagonist into their storytelling style. As a result, the interactions between father and sons feel authentic, while some of the things transpiring outside their little clan can feel contrived.

For example, Joe faces increasing pressure from his boss to go back out in the field, which builds to a crisis where he may lose his job. But this subplot is dropped suddenly, without resolution. A potential romance between Joe and a single mother (Emma Booth) likewise gets the short shrift.

I also didn't care for the device of Joe's dead wife appearing to him to have conversations about their son. It dredges up too many other movies with dead lovers who return as ghosts.

The movie is at its best when it's just the father and his sons, trying to engage them in a way that's nurturing but masculine. Despite societal changes that's still freewheeling, uncharted territory, and "The Boys Are Back" explores it with gusto and heart.

3 stars

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