28 March 2012 | larry-411
Refreshingly bold departure from traditional coming-of-age
Location: Small Town U.S.A. The kind of familiar place where Main Street has one traffic light and everybody knows your name. Three middle school boys, Andy (Dylan Hartigan), Charlie (Alex Maizus), and David (Jordan Puzzo) are (at first glance) typical mischievous teens hatching schemes. Don't get me wrong -- they're good boys -- but in a Stand By Me kind of way they've become ordinary kids placed in an extraordinary situation. That's just a hint of the story of "Funeral Kings," the auspicious debut feature from brothers Kevin and Matt McManus, who wrote, directed, and produced this sweet little American indie.
True artists take risks, and "Funeral Kings" is filled with bold choices on the part of the directors. First, the McManus brothers made the decision early on to cast kids of the same age as their young characters. No "18 to play 15" here. If anything, it was the other way around. They also chose non-actors for some lead roles. I won't reveal which, if any, of the kids didn't have professional experience since I challenge viewers to figure that out (without looking on IMDb). I certainly couldn't tell.
The filmmakers also decided not to sanitize the language. This may be the first movie rated R simply based on the number of F-bombs dropped by kids so young. These aren't wise-ass high school seniors here. These boys are barely out of their tweens. But it's real, and just another aspect of the movie that makes "Funeral Kings" so authentic. There's something oddly endearing about a trio of potty-mouthed 13-14-year-olds spouting R-rated language in an otherwise family-friendly coming-of-age film. But the shock wears off fairly quickly and suddenly we're in on the joke. (Kudos to the parents for saying yes to the filmmakers.) Wise decisions can be serendipitous, as well. "Mean Creek" is one of my all-time favorite indies. The narrative turns dark at one point and what follows is one of the best examples I've ever seen of "less is more." There's a long sequence with no dialogue. It's a classic scene in modern American independent cinema. An incident takes place in "Funeral Kings" which inspires a similar response. Like in "Mean Creek," the scene works because the filmmakers had faith in their actors' abilities to say as much, if not more, with their sad eyes and plaintive facial expressions than words can express. I was even more impressed to find out, in my discussion with the McManus brothers afterward, that there originally was dialogue written for that scene. But the powerfully emotive acting made the lines unnecessary. Bravo.
The boys are occasionally shot in quiet, thoughtful moments with long takes, necessary punctuation for the frenetic distractibility of their standard behavior which drives the multi-layered narrative. It was a particularly effective decision since there are few adults to be found in this film. These are kids being kids, and we just have the privilege of being a fly on the wall (or tree) and peeking in on their sometimes salacious, occasionally dangerous, but always edgy activities.
One of the most brilliant decisions on the part of the McManus brothers was to keep the narrative somewhat unfocused, like a script that reflects the ADD-driven adolescent brain. Story lines pick up and drop off, occasionally resolving themselves, sometimes not. Loose ends aren't always tied up. The plot is a bit like the kids' lives themselves -- slightly scattered, occasionally bordering on insanity, but always exciting and switching gears on a moment's notice. Yet it all makes sense, and the film never strays from its genuine depiction of teenage adventure.
"Funeral Kings" has an indie look and feel right from the start. Cinematographer Alex Disenhof's use of hand-held camera and available light for extensive outdoor sequences showcase both the actors' improv smarts as well as the beauty of the Rhode Island woods where much of the action takes place. Disenhof's photography and Jacob Scheyder's production design help place us in a real teen environment, not based on a Hollywood screenwriter's nostalgic images or box-office driven Disneyfied notion of the world in which these kids live and play. Nate Cormier's editing isn't music video-flashy and the score by Scott Schulman is equally unpretentious. Like any good character-driven movie, the focus is on the cast.
The three young actors carry this film magnificently. Hartigan is the idea man, wise beyond his 14 years (or so he'd like to believe), with the coolness to adapt and succeed at whatever is thrown at him. Maizus is like a dear deer in headlights, out of his element, a playful kid who just wants to have fun but is drawn into a pact with the devil. Puzzo is the keen face of maturity, an old soul trapped in a little kid's body, who knows when to call it quits and put out the fire.
Creativity in filmmaking must rely on a fresh approach and willingness to take chances. Kevin and Matt McManus did that time and again in the production of this film. The result can either be a disaster or a wonderfully rewarding experience. For me, it was the latter.