Some actors-turned-directors jump out of the box fully-formed, fully utilizing a learned bag of tricks to properly convey their show business experience, to tell a story that burns inside of them. And some, lacking real vision, just want to take a shot at something new. It appears Matthew Lillard is among the latter group, as evidenced by his directorial debut “Fat Kid Rules The World.” Which isn’t bad, of course -- in adapting the source material of the same name, Lillard goes for clarity and humanity over artistry and esotericism. Modest as it may be, the film is not without its pleasures.
Jacob Wysocki plays the depressed title character Troy, a young high schooler who sleepwalks through school, fantasizing about jumping in front of a bus one day and sending his blood and guts splattering all over the pavement. What’s notable isn’t that he has this thought, but that when he cuts away from that graphic daydream, he’s beaming from ear to ear. Living a relatively normal middle-class lifestyle with his younger teenage brother and an ex-Military taskmaster of a dad (Billy Campbell, surprisingly good), he spends his days hiding his overeating and wasting countless hours in front of the computer screen playing fantasy games with anonymous “friends.” This film, for the record, is very anti-video game. The multi-billion dollar gaming industry can probably take it.
When he finally decides to jump in front of the bus, he’s tackled and brought to safety by grungy local teen Marcus (Matt O’Leary) who cannily turns it into a shakedown opportunity, requesting $20 for “saving his life.” His clothing ratty and mangled, Marcus has already become an outsider, kicked out of his home, his band, and his school. But Marcus, a chattering junkie of endless imagination, sees the way Troy looks at him. Wysocki gives Troy an innate intelligence -- he doesn’t speak to people like the skinny, handsome Marcus because of his own wordless understanding of the high school caste system. It’s a mixture of awe and respect, and the fact that anyone is addressing the literal elephant in the room is strange, but liberating to Troy‘s low self-esteem.
Marcus, forced to become proactive to save his own life, sees the exact opposite in Troy: a man scared into his shell, his significant weight a shield against the ugliness of real life. He proposes, with endless semi-genuine pep-talking, that he and Troy start a band, the Tectonics, and manages to inspire the pessimistic Troy with a goal to pursue, assigning him the job of playing drums in this two-man operation, even if Marcus himself merely goes from bed to sofa to floor, never once practicing.
'Fat Kid' has all the earmarks of an outsider-coming-of-age film, but the source material, from K.L. Going, never takes the easy out. Troy’s insouciance soon gives way to an unfortunate darkness, and the questions he must answer are further complicated by the film's strong lead performances. Wysocki convincingly registers a youthful enthusiasm that feels hard-won, while O’Leary, a drug-using manipulator, is given enough screen-time to almost make his scheming jerk likeable, and certainly relatable. The dynamic between them is borne out of dishonesty, but even within that lie, Marcus starts to warm to the only person that’s shown him attention. Troy, for his part, consistently has his reservations, though he enters this friendship fully once he understands how beneficial it would be to him. It doesn’t hurt that the duo soon pick up a very attractive groupie, in the form of effervescent newcomer Lili Simmons.
Special notice should be given to Billy Campbell, who takes a stock character and gives him a new spin. His father figure is stiff, upright, and straight-forward, and it initially seems like he’s a bully. But soon, you realize that’s the only mode he understands. With dry humor, Campbell’s every line reading is delivered like a military order, even when you realize how much love he has for his sons. When he meets Marcus, he’s immediately wary, but Troy soon finds his own drumset left in his room. As his unsmiling father shows him the wares, he notifies him that most of the equipment is sold separately, and immediately informs his son on the necessity of regular cleanings. In the hands of another actor, this is a sitcom, but Campbell showcases a natural warmth even without a smile, hug, or Big Acting Moment.
While there’s relatively little to no insight on in-school cliques or dynamics, Lillard otherwise very much seems like a fan of “Freaks And Geeks,” using primary colors set against muted visuals to allow for a kid-centric world with a certain rough-around-the-edges quality. He doesn’t trust the material enough, which results in a series of elaborate slapstick dream sequences, which get progressively less funny and appropriate as the film goes on -- it’s as if the regular story simply isn’t glamorous enough, and after every break in reality, the film struggles to regain its footing. The film closes on a somewhat ambiguous note, at least on paper. But Lillard’s low-key approach to the final shot suggests that, even with the tonal weaknesses of a modest, familiar story, he’s found the humanity within. [B-]