Boys Are Back: Scott Hicks’ Family Drama Starring Clive Owen

After a decade of making weak and disappointing films, Scott Hicks, still best known for his stunning debut, “Shine,” is back on terra firma with “The Boys Are Back,” an intimate family drama, centering on a single, professional man who simply doesn’t know how to be a father.

The movie world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations).  

The narrative is accessible enough to go beyond the arthouse or niche markets.  With the right marketing, Miramax could score modestly with multi-generational viewers with a touching family drama, when it opens wide September 25.

It’s hard to think of another director who had begun his career so high as Aussie Hicks, with the Oscar-winning “Shine,” and then went on to make one disappointing film after another, including “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Hearts of Atlantis,” and “No Reservations,” all artistically dull and trivial pictures that were also commercial flops.

Thus, from a director’s standpoint, “The Boys Are Back” is a step in the right direction,” even if it’s a conventional father-son (and later father-sons) melodrama, which is only one or two notches above the TV Movie of the Week. While the film is not as maudlin or sentimental as it could have been, it’s still a contrived, predictable tale, all the way to the upbeat resolution of a grand family reunion.

Based on Simon Carr’s 2001 memoir of the same title, adapted to the screen by Allan Cubitt, “Boys Are Back” is a literal drama about the effects of death of one parent (in this case the wife-mother) on her husband and their only son, and the ensuing hard processes of learning (resocialization as they say in sociology) of how to be a responsible father and adjusting to a new reality in the wake of tragedy and divorce. (Our screens are filled right now with single fathers who have lost their wives, for one reason or another)

“The Boys Are Back” displays yet another facet of the gifted Clive Owen, who now proves that his range is endless as a thespian and that he is equally at ease in every genre, drama, comedy, actioner and so forth. Throughout, it’s pleasure to behold the multi-nuanced performance, with all the shadings and darker spots, rendered by Owen, who’s one of the most talented, versatile, handsome and appealing actors working today.

Owen plays Joe Warr, a British pro who works as a sports journalist in Australia, a particular site that the story takes full advantage off visually, In the opening scene, Joe drives along the beach with Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), his 6-year-old son, sitting on the car’s hood. This scene immediately conveys a relationship between a fun-loving, wild, liberally permissive, perhaps not entirely accountable father. (Sure enough, Joe will have change to the point where at the end of the story he would not tolerate such a dangerous and risky thing).

In a voice-over that sets the tone for the earlier chapters of the saga, Joe says, “I don’t know if you have ever seen the map of a person’s mind, but a child’s min is all zigzag lines.” And it is, especially a single, isolated boy (Artie has an older stepbrother, who lives with Joe’s first wife, but they have never met). Through flashbacks, we get episodes of Joe’s happy marriage to his beloved wife Katy (Laura Fraser), cut short when she’s diagnosed with a lethal cancer. Times have changed and Artie is highly aware of his mother’s grave illness and death; what he is unaware of is how radical his life would be in her absence, living with a dada who he hardly knows.

The elements that don’t work effectively are Joe’s visions, or the presence of Kathy’s ghost, which appears periodically, summoned by Joe through a nice memory, or desperate need for a piece of pragmatic advice.

After a brief mourning period, Joe begins to assume the daily, mundane chores, shopping groceries, doing laundry, washing the dishes, keeping the house lean and orderly (sort of; the kitchen is always a mess). These are duties that professional men often gladly delegate to their wives. We have been here before, in fact exactly 30 years go, when Dustin Hoffman had to learn the hard way how to be a father in Robert Benton’s Oscar-winning melodrama “Kramer Vs. Kramer.”

Despite the appearance of secondary female characters, the focus remains smartly and engagingly on the central, ever changing father-son bond. There are three women in the tale, including Katy (Laura Frazer) Joe’s dead wife, who appears in apparitions and flashbacks. 

Strongest of the three is Julia Blake as Katy’s mother, whose relationship with Joe is understandably sensitive and supportive but also feisty and contentious when they disagree over how to raise Artie. Emma Booth as Laura, plays an attractive single mom, who befriends Joe and occasionally serves as baby-sitter and confidante.

At first, Joe opts for “free-range” parenting, an unconventional approach to child-rearing methods, based on the enforcement of minimal parental authority through norms and rules, instead stressing the father’s role as an open-minded father, more of risk-taker (as the ride had suggested). But this strategy doesn’t yield optimal results, at least not in the short run, and thus, Joe and Artie argue, fight, separate, and reconcile—sometimes over minor, but always credible, issues.

The narrative becomes more interesting and varied with the arrival of Harry (George MacKay of “Defiance” fame), Joe’s teenager son from his first marriage, to Australia for an extended visit. To borrow yet again a concept from sociology, from the German thinker Georg Simmel’s theory of dyads and triads, the interactions now involve coalitions of two men against one, but the composition vary. It could be the two sons against Joe, or Joe and Artie against Harry, and so on.

Joe now has to deal with one, but two alienated sons, as Harry is still resentful his desertion by his dad, and uncertain about his future, namely, whether to go back to his mom (who’s remarried), or stay with Joe and Artie, as the duo wish to.

Despite reliance on conventional devices, Hicks has made a rather realistic, emotionally touching film, which represents his most resonant work since “Shine” in 1996.

 

Cast

Joe Warr – Clive Owen
Laura –
Emma Booth
Katy – Laura Fraser
Harry – George MacKay
Artie – Nicholas McAnulty

Credits

Miramax Films (in U.S./U.K.) release 

Produced by Greg Brenman, Tim White.

Executive producers, Peter Bennett-Jones, Clive Owen, David Thompson, Jane Wright.

Co-producer, Bella Wright.

Directed by Scott Hicks.

Screenplay, Allan Cubitt, based on the memoir “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Simon Carr.

Camera, Greig Fraser.

Editor, Scott Gray.

Music, Hal Lindes; music supervisors, Ian Neil, Chris Gough; songs, Sigur Ros.

Production designer, Melinda Doring

Costume designer, Emily Seresin

Sound, Ben Osmo

Associate producer, Jessica Beiler.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 104 Minutes.