30 December 2009 | pyrocitor
Uplifting, devastating, authentic and low key - an unassuming success in compelling emotional storytelling
Going by a superficial examination of director Scott Hicks' latest human drama, The Boys are Back, it might prove incredibly difficult to envision how the story, detailing the death of a spouse, healing through father/son bonding and the struggle to balance personal and selfless agendas in life, could avoid caving to contrived Hollywood sentiment and easy storytelling cliché. However, bearing this concern in mind, Hicks' film can be seen as affirmation to the fact that real stories of loss and emotional rebirth can be told without simply succumbing to excessive saccharine convention while retaining their authenticity, as The Boys are Back fuses humour, heartbreak, power and poignancy with the greatest of ease and with a complete lack of pretension, feeling impressively real and all the more resonant because of it.
While the film could be described as a challenging watch due to its upsetting subject matter, more challenging (in an entirely positive sense) is Hicks' refusal to provide the viewer with 'easy answers' or superficial narrative or emotional closure. Rather than providing a streamlined narrative filled with requisite Hollywood exposition and filler scenes, the film appears to simply jump from scene to scene, providing a clear sense of an overarching narrative, but with more of a clunky, episodic flow, devoting nearly as much emphasis to seemingly banal scenes as Owen's character struggling to do the laundry or leisurely sequences of the boys playing (framed by the sumptuous scenery of Southern Australia)as more pivotal plot points. However, such a narrative style amplifies the sense of realism of the story, as if Hicks' cameras simply happened across the events unfolding rather than them being carefully predetermined for maximum emotional effect, as one might see in a more carefully tailored Hollywood film. Similarly, despite the superficially fragmented sense of narrative, through representing seemingly inconsequential moments interspersed with the major emotional scenes, Hicks' story paradoxically feels all the more flushed out, hinting at a much grander story looming beyond its collection of trace moments, and feeling all the more realistic and impactful because of it.
However, Hicks' film truly excels at providing moments of raw, often tear-jerking emotion, without them ever seeming forced or false. The subtlety and abruptness of Owen's wife falling ill is all the more devastating through its lack of overt begging for sentiment, and many of the scenes of Owen attempting to cheer up his sons are likely to leave few dry eyes in the house through their overwhelming charm and the sheer naturalistic joy they evoke. As such, while the film is not without its occasional faults (rocky patches of dialogue crop up throughout and the story begins to drag as it approaches the end), its sheer power, emotional poignancy and Hicks' refusal to beat the audience over the head continually instils the film with life and immediacy, making it a perpetually interesting watch.
However, as with many such intimate human dramas, it is the strength of the central performers which really drives the film home. Clive Owen is simply flooring as the struggling sports writer attempting to find equilibrium between his own concerns and grief and taking care of his two sons after the unexpected death of his wife. Giving a performance brimming with pathos but also necessary charm, Owen easily delivers his best work to date: a magnificent, unshowy and achingly true portrait of a man in crisis which proves utterly unshakable after the film is done. However, as capable as Owen is, the performances by Nicholas McAnulty and George MacKay as his two sons (younger and older respectively), who prove just as proficient at delivering staggeringly honest, powerful, charming and heartbreaking performances of two boys caught between acting their ages and dealing with emotional trauma potentially beyond their capacities. Laura Fraser is also a heartbreaking and memorable presence as Owen's tragically deceased wife, seen largely in imagined conversations with him throughout the narrative.
Whether extracting tears of heartbreak or cheers of joy from the audience, Hicks' The Boys are Back proves a remarkably effective yet impressively low key drama filled with enough scrappy humour to provide much needed balance. With astonishing performances sure to attract awards attention, the film will hopefully begin to garner more widespread recognition and attention, which it unquestionably merits and deserves.