Kind of a Big Deal, by Tyler Smith
There is just something about an actor’s first outing as a director. I don’t know what it is. With a few Oscar-winning exceptions, the movie turns out to be nothing really of note. There’s usually nothing particularly bad about it, but nothing too memorable, either. As if the actor-turned-director didn’t want to tackle too much at once and decided to start with something relatively small.
Such is the case with actor Matthew Lillard’s directorial debut, Fat Kid Rules the World. In many ways, it is a very good movie. It’s fairly well-written and extremely well-acted, but nothing about it really stuck with me. It was fine- sometimes great- while it was happening, but when it was over, I didn’t give it a second thought.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Not every film is meant to blow our minds. Some movies are content to just spend some time with you, then never see you again. Fat Kid Rules the World is sort of like that. It’s a pleasant encounter with somebody that you find intriguing, but you never bother to write down their number; one meeting was enough.
The story is pretty simple. Jacob Wysocki plays Troy, an overweight high school student with no friends and no motivation. As the film begins, he dreams of killing himself; blood and guts everywhere. It gets to the point where he finally attempts it, stepping in front of a bus, but he is saved by Marcus (Matt O’Leary) at the last second. Marcus is a grungy high school drop out who immediately hits up Troy for $20. Troy only has $13. Marcus ends their first encounter with, “You owe me seven.”
A strange friendship develops between the two misfits as Marcus- a locally famous punk rock musician- decides to start a new band, with Troy on drums. Troy has never played drums before, but Marcus has already made up his mind.
Troy is excited to have a friend for the first time in years, but his father and brother are trepidatous. Perhaps Marcus is the wrong kind of friend to have. He smells, he wolfs down whatever food he can get his hands on, and he seems to spend a lot of his visits to Troy’s house just sleeping. It’s extremely likely that Marcus is either on drugs or homeless. Or both.
There’s not much more that happens, except the further development of these characters. They are fine characters; nothing really extraordinary about them. But each of the actors finds the core of their character pretty quickly and creates living, breathing people that we feel we can relate to, even when we don’t particularly like them.
Jacob Wysocki initially plays Troy as a sort of sad sack. He slumps his way through his day, only showing any real excitement when he is home on his computer, playing a World of Warcraft-type game. Wysocki wisely doesn’t change a lot in his demeanor when Marcus starts to take an interest in him. Troy is clearly excited that there is somebody out there that wants to spend time with him, but he wants to be careful not to show it. Wysocki invests Troy with the self-preserving qualities of somebody that has been burned before and wants to take it slow. It makes the character quite heartbreaking.
Part of the success of Troy’s character comes with building a believable home life around him. Billy Campbell as his father and Dylan Arnold as his brother at first seem as if they don’t understand Troy, and don’t want to. But, of course, this is family and they do care deeply about Troy. They don’t want to see him get hurt. Campbell plays his role with a cold demeanor, but slowly sheds that as he recognizes that Troy needs a father just as much as he needs a friend. Dylan Arnold doesn’t have a lot of screen time as Troy’s brother, Dayle, but he does get to have what I consider to be the best scene in the film. Troy and Dayle sit quietly in their dining room, talking about their dead mother. It is a great scene for both actors, but Arnold especially hints at unexplored depths within a seemingly two dimensional character; a young man that has buried his grief under a pile of trophies and awards, thinking that will somehow ease the pain. It’s no small compliment to Dylan Arnold to say that I felt that the film could just as easily have been about him and I probably would have been just as interested.
As Marcus, Matt O’Leary probably has the hardest role in the film. We’ve seen characters like Marcus before. He is the charming, undependable leech. Once he sees something he can latch onto, he does, and sucks it dry. Early on, he clearly sees Troy as a sort of mark; an opportunity to get some money, food, clothes, or shelter. In theory, we should hate Marcus, but O’Leary, with his sad eyes and gawky frame, makes the character just vulnerable enough that, more than anything, we just want him to get his act together. We want good things for a character that gives us very little reason to hope. With the wrong actor in the role, the movie simply wouldn’t work as well as it does.
And, indeed, the movie does work well. It would be wrong to call the film a failure simply because it aims relatively low. I connected with these characters for as long as they were on screen; that’s not bad. And, as far as Matthew Lillard’s directing goes, it’s not bad. There are some jarring tonal shifts and some visual jokes that seem somehow out of place, but he shows a sure hand in working with actors and getting what he needs from them. I’m interested to see if he does anything in the future.
So, in the end, I guess I recommend Fat Kid Rules the World, if for no other reason than the superb acting on all fronts. Worth seeing? Yes. Worth remembering? Not really.