By: debbie lynn elias
All I can say is Applause, Applause, Applause for Matthew Lillard as a director and for the film FAT KID RULES THE WORLD. An adaptation of the K.L. Going award-winning young adult novel, Lillard makes his directorial debut with this great coming of age story – with a twist. What could have been a blase, cookie cutter film, steps out of the box thanks to solid performances by Jacob Wysocki, Matt O’Leary and veteran Billy Campbell and a by placing the film’s principal teens, Troy and Marcus [Curt in the book], in a punk rock world. Punk rock is an attitude, a state of mind that automatically lends itself to high energy that stems from dark emotion, such as the challenges of being a teen. Using the energy of punk to fuel the positivity of the pair starting a band and the friendship of Troy and Marcus not only gives FAT KID an entirely different spin and balance, but will tap into teens who are have the same type of feelings and situations such as those of Troy and Marcus.
Embracing realism and the world today, there is nothing easy or polished, no one is flush with cash and living high on the hog in FAT KID RULES THE WORLD. The Billings family suffers from the loss of Mom with the surviving men each lost and not communicating – something quite common with a former Marine as a parent as they are notoriously close-mouthed and run the home with no emotion. Eldest son Troy, 17, overweight and friendless is on the brink of suicide only to have his dreamed of efforts thwarted when a fellow loner – and “screw-up” – named Marcus saves him from the discomfort of being run over by a bus. A pill-popping punk rocker, Marcus demands recompense for his altruism. Cash is good. Joining Marcus’ punk rock band as a drummer is even better. Allowing him to flop and eat at the Billings home is better still.
Yet, it is the structure and discipline of the Billings home that sets the stage for a hoped for salvation of Marcus, a teen who is beyond lost and alone, not to mention a reconnective familial bond between Troy, his brother and his dad. Overcoming the wariness of Mr. Billings with his silken charm, Marcus is the catalyst not only for Troy’s salvation, but the salvation of the Billings family and, in turn, Marcus himself. The dynamic between Marcus and Mr. Billings is heartwarming while the genuine character of Troy and his caring and compassion for a friend who saved him is not only admirable, but selfless. I haven’t seen such truth, honesty and realism like this in a coming of age story since ABC Afterschool Specials in the 1970s.
The acting is first rate starting with Jacob Wysocki. I love Jacob and so does director Matthew Lillard. A sweetheart and genuinely nice young man in real life, he brings those same qualities and sensitivities to Troy. For Lillard, “I think everything trades on Jacob. Matt [O’Leary] is only amazing because Jacob holds the scene. The thing that Jacob carries is this emotional weight that allows us to do what [we do]. Jacob has these eyes and the simplicity and the beauty behind them that really holds that film together.” Sweet, kind and funny, he is beyond likable. You want him as your friend. With FAT KID, you root for him to get the girl. You root for him for play the drums. You root for him to connect with his dad. You can’t help but root for whatever character Jacob plays and that’s because of the heart that he puts into the performance. You see it here. He wears his heart on his sleeve which makes his performance so much richer, so priceless, so endearing. As Lillard opines, “Jacob is the one that I really find to be amazing.”
I couldn’t be more impressed with Billy Campbell. Himself once playing brash young 20-somethings much like Marcus, as Mr. Billings, this is a Campbell we haven’t see before. Tough, rigid, principled. But we see the character shift as the film progresses thanks to tacit nuance from Campbell. His performance here is a master class in acting. And the final act, when Mr. Billings finally opens up and sees the joy in life (again, through the exuberance of punk), you can’t help but grin from ear-to-ear at this flawless character arc and performance.
Matt O’Leary is a surprise. As Marcus, he is “electric”, fueling the energy of the film with the pulse of punk. A perfect complement to Wysocki’s more tame and subdued performance, these two actors are like a seemingly off-key duet, but when put together are pitch perfect. O’Leary’s frenetic drugged out performance is believable and at times, painful, to watch. He makes you feel Marcus’ pain. Interesting in O’Leary’s performance is that he as equally at ease and believable in a relationship with Wysocki’s Troy as he is with Campbell’s Mr. Billings.
Based on the young adult novel by K.L. Going, FAT KID RULES THE WORLD is written by Michael Galvin and Peter Speakman with an infusion of Matthew Lillard. With characters that emotionally grow and learn from their mistakes, their joys, even their losses, director Lillard allows it all to unfold on screen. We see Troy gain confidence and not only accept himself for who he is, but for the precious good qualities that he has. We see Mr. Billings embrace his children and allow Troy the freedom to find himself and friendship; and we see Billings grow as a parent and not only accept the growth and choices of his children, but support them and encourage them – not something one would have ever anticipated at the onset of the film. and we see Marcus rebel to the bitter end, only to find out that he really isn’t alone. No one in the story is ever alone. It’s just a matter of each finding their way to the other, and they do it thanks to Matthew Lillard’s direction.
From a directorial standpoint, Lillard nails it. This is one of the finest directorial debuts that I have ever had the privilege to see. With a punk rock energy as an underlying tone, Lillard and his team had a visual concept of “dirty, pretty pictures” to tie together the thematic elements of the story with the energy of the music. “We continually tried to make pretty pictures in a really kind of dirty and off-centered way.” Working closely with cinematographer Noah Rosenthal, framing and lighting is exemplary. Terrific use of door frames, window frames, alcoves that direct the eye and mind to those individuals within the boxy structured frame; also serves as a metaphoric tool that shows not only the rigid confines of the Billings family structure but also as a visual expression of Troy’s emotional cloaking from the world. As the story progresses and the characters grow, those perfectly framed scenes become more skewed, off-center, free and open before culminating in an explosive open air rooftop concert of camaraderie. The concert mirrors the openness that has resulted within the characters and their relationships. According to Lillard, “The whole movie, for me, [Troy] was trying to hide behind the door. Half body, quarter body, he’s always trying to hide his mass. But it’s not until the end as he starts to move forward and in the space that he gets away from those moments. We kept trying to put vertical lines between the dad [and Troy]. Everytime we could get a vertical line between [Troy] and somebody, we would do it.”
Color also comes into play with the rich warning light reds of the concert scenes, the grey hued sky that slowly becomes more sun-filled and warm, the sad sickly yellow pallor of the Billings home that slowly warms with umbered backlight, bright over the dining room table light. It’s all a beautifully tapestried and cohesive blend of performance, story and technical proficiency.
According to Lillard, “We had a very clear sense every day going in. . .we had a Bible for everything so we knew exactly what we wanted to do. And there was freedom within that form but we were very clearly with the form – how we were shooting Jacob [Wysocki], the lens package we were on, the progression. There’s a very specific visual story. . . We have this huge game plan for the movie. Nothing is accidental. The more a film is independent, the more you have to be prepared. I think you have to be that way anyway. But it’s that form and that structure that made us kind of jump around and to change on the day but still maintain the Bible.”
And then the music!! Awesome! Soundtrack please. Under the guise of music supervisor Sandy Wilson, the songs are irreverent, exciting and energetic calling on the talents of punk groups like Whiskey Tango, F***ing Eagles and Three Oh Sees. The score itself comes from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some lag points within the construct. A few scenes in the second act drag a bit and could have benefitted from tighter editing, but then that might have sacrificed some of the character study and growth. That’s something Lillard does quite effectively – the character growth is not something that happens overnight. There is no remarkable revelation. It is a slow, gradual process that happens by building trust and confidence not only among the characters, but with the audience. And with school and wardrobe changes, our mind immediately knows time is passing.
With a story grounded in relationships and reality that never shies away from the gritty awkwardness of the situations at hand, and a filmmaking team that relied on relationships in creating the canvas we see unfold, it’s pretty clear that FAT KID RULES THE WORLD really does rule…and so does Matthew Lillard.
Troy – Jacob Wysocki
Marcus – Matt O’Leary
Mr. Billings – Billy Campbell
Directed by Matthew Lillard.
Written by Michael Galvin and Peter Speakman based on the novel by K.L. Going.
NOTE TO READERS –
Do you want FAT KID RULES THE WORLD at your favorite movie theater??? You can!!
As explained by Matthew Lillard, “Go to TUGGTHEFATKID.COM. Any kid in the U.S. can set up a screening of our film in a local cinema. Once you pre-sell 40-60 tickets, that kid anywhere can set the time, the place, the location. And once he sells 40-60 tickets our movie screens in that theater, that one time and that one time only. And that kid, or the promoter or whoever sets it up, gets a percentage of the box office. We’ve had 1100 requests in the first eight weeks.”
Remember – TUGGTHEFATKID.COM!!!!