Father, sons grow up in marvelous ‘Boys Are Back’
Everyone knows about the Neverland, the place where little boys go to avoid growing up. But it’s more than a fairy tale for a carefree, globe-trotting sportswriter thrust suddenly into single fatherhood in The Boys Are Back. Directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), and featuring a marvelous performance by Clive Owen as the conflicted dad, it’s an extraordinarily wry, poignant, and perceptive look at fathers and sons who use creative anarchy as a means of helping each other come to grips with the cold, hard real world.
Adapted by scriptwriter Allan Cubitt from the memoir by real-life sports journalist Simon Carr, the film stars Owen as Joe Warr, star sportswriter for a major London newspaper. Joe’s the one his editor sends halfway around the world to cover the Olympics, or international soccer playoffs, but he always circles back to terra firma at the beachfront home in South Australia, where his loving, pragmatic Australian wife, Katie (Laura Fraser), a former Olympic equestrienne, and their little son, Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), are waiting.
But after he loses his wife to a brief, devastating terminal illness, Joe is left to raise his rambunctious little boy on his own. Against the advice of his in-laws, Joe takes Artie on a short road trip to try to get to know him better, only to discover that the process of knowing and understanding his child will take the rest of his life. In the meantime, confronted with random bouts of the childish obstinance with which kids always test the limits of their parents’ authority, Joe adopts a “just say yes” child-rearing policy.
It’s not that Joe automatically gives in to anything Artie wants, but no request, however crazy, is denied without a conversation. (And some are approved, to the scandal of the neighborhood, from providing nothing but chips and sodas for a kids’ party, to letting Artie fill up a motel bathtub and jump in, or careen across the beach on the hood of his dad’s jeep.) “The more rules there are,” says Joe, the more “crimes” can be committed against them. His solution is, “fewer rules.”
Complicating things further is the arrival of Harry (George MacKay), Joe’s adolescent son from a previous marriage, for the summer. It turns out that Joe left his first wife and little Harry to marry the pregnant Katie. Joe has always been upfront with the boys about this situation, and remained in long-distance contact with Harry. But when the youth himself, arrives in the household, the wary, but yearning collateral damage of sequential parenting, it adds an extra layer of tension to Joe’s fathering skills as he tries to plumb the depths of Harry’s complex feelings.
Director Hicks borrows liberally from Artie’s favorite storybook, “Peter Pan,” as the film’s chief metaphor. Joe’s rambling beachfront house couldn’t be more like the Neverland, with its riotous fauna, tree house, and swinging ropes outside, and indoor guy-clutter of soccer balls, mismatched sneakers, and old pizza boxes. (It’s quite a contrast to the grey skies, cold stone, and propriety of Harry’s London boarding school when Joe and Artie come to visit.)
The filmmakers also reference the notion in James Barrie’s “Peter Pan” of “drawing a map of a child’s mind,” and tidying up the boisterous, chaotic disorder therein—a task traditionally best left to the mother. (“Shouldn’t the state intervene to make sure a woman takes care of a little boy?” Joe wonders, early on.) Joe, like Barrie, has a love-hate relationship with feminine influence: his devoted but sometimes disapproving mother-in-law is often set in opposition to his plans. Yet the sanest voice of reason in the film is Katie, who appears in tender moments to advise and hearten Joe—advice that helps him and his lost boys navigate the process of growing up together.
Owen plays Joe with sly wit, and beguiling depth and heart. His rapport with both of his excellent young co-stars, MacKay and McAnulty, has the perilous, yet jubilant pulsebeat of real-life relationships. Warm and funny (the poolside dispatch Joe files on Michael Phelps is a riot), and remarkably free of cloying sentimentality, this modest little film is a treasure. Watch movie trailer >>>
THE BOYS ARE BACK ★★★★
With Clive Owen, Nicholas McAnulty, George MacKay, and Laura Fraser. Written by Allan Cubitt. From the memoir by Simon Carr. Directed by Scott Hicks. A Miramax release. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes.