Matthew Lillard's directorial debut, "Fat Kid Rules the World," is a standard coming-of-age movie; it never does anything surprising or adventurous. But if you accept it on those terms, it's an entirely serviceable ode to punk rock as the ultimate panacea for teen angst.
Based on K.L. Going's young-adult novel about an overweight teen who discovers his much-needed catharsis by banging on a drum set, "Fat Kid" occasionally suffers from the feeble conventions of an afterschool special, although it rises above those trappings largely thanks to an impressive turn by Jacob Wysocki.
Proving his emotionally resonant work in "Terri" was no one-trick wonder, Wysocki credibly embodies depressed Seattle teen Troy, a hopeless recluse still reeling from the death of his mother and struggling to get along with his cold-blooded father, a police officer whose job influences his stern parenting skills. From the opening minutes, when Troy imagines and then attempts to commit suicide by leaping in front of a bus, the teen's misery takes center stage. It's one of several imaginary moments that occasionally take over the movie in a recurring device that effectively illustrates Troy's disconnection from the world.
His escape from oblivion arrives in the form of an enthusiastic rocker, Marcus (Matt O'Leary). A rebellious kid from a broken home, he arbitrarily goads Troy into becoming the drummer for his band even though Troy has never played. Initially mortified by Marcus' invasion of his private life, Troy eventually embraces the opportunity to leave the bubble of his troubled home and experience the hard-partying lifestyle of the music scene.
"Fat Kid" initially feels like a mediocre comedy-drama, but it reaches for a better movie when Troy wakes up to the possibilities of punk rebellion, scribbling on his wall and banging out his frustrations on a newly furnished set. Wysocki's heartfelt performance makes these scenes imminently watchable, even though the film never ventures beyond familiar conventions. Lillard's direction (and the screenplay by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman) play up Troy's increasing sense of confidence to satisfying effect.
Scenes in which Troy enjoys his first wild concert experience and flirts with a high school crush contain an impressive amount of credibility, but the scenes surrounding them lack the same firm grounding. Because of Lillard's acting background, one can easily see the tension in "Fat Kid" between a first-time director who lacks the ability to energize his story but has an unquestionable talent for coaching potential out of his cast, all of whom deliver respectable performances.
Unfortunately, the movie veers off track by shifting focus to the drug-addled Marcus, whose dangerous lifestyle leads Troy and his family to step up their game and try to save him. Alternately friendly, mean-spirited and a total wreck, Marcus contains too many inconsistencies to work as the other central character in a movie made on such a small scale.
More generally, the story's cheery, upbeat intentions often feel out of sync with Troy's grim world; a few too many earnest monologues prevent the movie from feeling like anything other than a simple entertainment. But the ball remains firmly in Wysocki's court and he runs with it as far as he can, helping "Fat Kid" find its way to a satisfying climax. Just as Troy rules the world, Wysocki rules the movie, even if he can't defeat its general mediocrity.
Criticwire grade: B–
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lillard's name will propel the movie beyond pure festival attention, but the conventional plot and mixed buzz will probably relegate it mainly to a low-key life on VOD.