LeBeouf's Green Light
The Battle of Shaker Heights is the second film to emerge from the Project Greenlight contest, in which a $1 million budget is awarded to the winner along with a distribution deal from Miramax. Themselves once aspiring filmmakers with a brilliant idea and a lack of means, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck teamed up with American Pie producer Chris Moore to create Project Greenlight in hopes of providing an avenue for young screenwriters and directors who might need a big break to jump-start their film making dreams.
Shia LeBeouf manages to come across as both loathsome and charming as Kelly, a 17 year-old frustrated high school misfit with Greg Brady hair and a mile-long smart-aleck streak. He's a bit smarter than most of his peers, but has trouble finding the motivation to steer his intellect in the right direction. He's the kind of kid I envision one day writing and distributing the latest version of the KLEZ computer virus. When not spending his day in the principal's office, Kelly can be found on the mock battlefield, reenacting famous WWII battles with fellow military enthusiasts. But even during these reenactments, Kelly defies authority by going renegade on the script to ensure that the scenario's outcome makes him a hero. Self-admittedly, "Kelly never met a rule he didn't want to break."
A look at Kelly's family life reveals a fertile breeding ground of neglect and emotional abuse. His mother Eve (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist who provides for the family by donating the family's living room to classes where she teaches aspiring artists how to create those kitschy "starving artist" paintings. Kelly's father Abe (William Sadler) is, as Kelly puts it, "a VH1 documentary without the music." Abe blew Kelly's college fund on drugs and booze yet can't understand Kelly's reluctance to forgive and forget.
At a battle reenactment, Kelly meets Bart (Elden Henson), a young pudgy prep-school candidate from an affluent, yet highly demanding family. Together, the two concoct an elaborate plan to exact revenge on a bullying classmate. Kelly, initially intrigued by Bart's father's collection of militaria, eventually turns his affection to Tabby (Amy Smart), Bart's sister. Although Tabby's wedding is just days away, she responds to Kelly's advances, sparking a morally objectionable dilemma that initially seems disastrous but ultimately urges Kelly to reckon his past and make amends to forge his future.
While The Battle of Shaker Heights (a dual reference to Kelly's struggle with ho-hum suburbia and his war reenactments) never approaches the prominence of Damon and Affleck's Good Will Hunting, it does display the kind of potential that invokes curiosity about what was left in the editing room. Newcomer Erica Beeney shows flashes of brilliance as her nimble little script utilizes dialogue that is always clever and sophisticated yet, despite its adolescent subject matter, never stoops to juvenile levels. Her characters are always smart and quick-witted but perhaps the Greenlight "committee" prevented them from fermenting properly.
Despite its many shortcomings, The Battle of Shaker Heights is a fun and nuanced little coming-of-age affair that succeeds mostly due to the performance of LeBeouf. It's a beautifully photographed film with a noble message, one hitting its target without wielding a sledgehammer. With a runtime of just a tad under 80 minutes, I found myself wanting more.
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG-13" for language and some drug references.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.