Coming-of-age stories have been a mainstay of Hollywood films since the first images flickered across a screen. They have ranged from the "aw, shucks" kind of storytelling in the "Andy Hardy" films to the latest very adult examination in "Giant Little Ones."
This latest look at big decisions in a young life works because of a masterful script by director/writer Keith Behrman ("The Stagers"). Unlike so many coming-of-age films, Behrman shows the intelligent approach of presenting that while one incident may eventually be a major mile marker, it's not always immediately obvious how much impact will be made.
Behrman's story focuses on Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann), who have been best friends since childhood. Unlike so many films about social misfits, the two young men have found great success in high school, as sports stars enjoying great popularity with girls.
On the night of Franky's 17th birthday, something happens that changes the friends' relationship. The event has left Franky confused, especially because he's dealing with some parental issues. His father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan), has left the family after finally admitting he is gay. This has created a sense of abandonment in Franky that proves a roadblock in turning to his father for help.
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His mother, Carly (Maria Bello), is having her own problems. The insecurities she feels after the loss of her husband have manifested into a steady string of losers for dates. Since she can't get her emotional house in order, there is little hope for Franky.
Behrman smartly shows how emotional explosions have a big fallout. There are those who offer extreme words of advice, while others prefer just to crucify Franky without full knowledge of what happened. These parties just add to the pressures that eventually send Franky into an emotional spiral.
With a less competent hand on the script, this is the point in a coming-of-age story where the wisdom offered would be to define what has happened and accept there is no other outcome. Behrman offers a more realistic view when it is suggested that what has happened to Franky may not be as important as he thinks. The suggestion of how he should approach the issue that is tearing his life apart is what elevates "Giant Little Ones" above the standard story of young discovery.
The other smart thing Behrman has done is put together a very strong cast, starting with Wiggins ("Max"). This is not an easy role to play, as he must start out as an in-control young man who then begins to unravel. It requires an actor who can both play confident and insecure, and Wiggins does both.
It's also a role that requires him to be a son who both needs his parents and knows he must try to deal with the world on his own. The scenes between Wiggins and MacLachlan are particularly strong because of the confusion the young man must face. MacLachlan is equally strong as a father who wants to be there for his son but realizes his decisions regarding his own sexuality have created a wall.
The father-son moments are far more interesting than Franky dealing with his mom. Bello seems too distant considering the situation her husband created. Bello either needed to show more of a connection or play the character as severely damaged instead of somewhere in the middle.
Offsetting the minor glitch with Bello is Taylor Hickson's portrayal of Franky's good friend and emotional adviser. The character is like a sexual Tinkerbell, flitting in and out of scenes when a tiny shift in mood is needed.
The performance by Bello is a bump in what is a very thoughtful and balanced look at what life events can mean. What seems easy to be dismissed as the open door to the rest of a person's life can be no more than a window to multiple possibilities. Providing a look through that window is what makes "Giant Little Ones" rise above the standard coming-of-age offering.
GIANT LITTLE ONES
Cast: Maria Bello, Kyle MacLachlan, Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann.
Director: Keith Behrman.
Rated: R for language, drug use, sexual situations.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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