Summer has arrived and with it another coming-of-age story with the usual obstacles, bullies, first love, and disconnected parents. English director Jim Loach, a fan of American independent coming-of-age cinema, tackles the genre with an adaptation of Robert Lipsyte’s autobiographical novel “One Fat Summer.” Instead of rehashing familiar tropes, “Measure of a Man” keeps the audience engaged with a first-class performance by Blake Cooper (“The Maze Runner”) as the film’s 14-year old protagonist Bobby Marks.
The year is 1976 and once again the Marks family is spending the summer at Rumson Lake. Luke Wilson plays Marty, the gung-ho father of the pack who is usually M.I.A. after being called back to the city on business. Fourteen-year-old Bobby thinks his father is cheating on mom Lenore (Judy Greer), the two seem to be always fighting, and then there’s older sister Michelle (Liana Liberato) who is secretly seeing Pete Marino (Luke Benward) a local athlete whose parents own the beach club.
Bobby is an overweight, curly-haired teenager who serves as the film’s narrator. Each summer he’s picked on by the locals who despise the summer people and this year it’s even worse thanks to Willie Rumson (Beau Knapp), a year-rounder who singles out Bobby as the target of his bullying. The fourteen-year-old may not be able to physically defend himself from Rumson and his bully friends, the Smith Boys, but he can outwit them. There is one bright spot to Bobby’s summer vacations and that’s his best friend Joanie Williams (Danielle Rose Russell) who is also bullied by the locals because of her large nose. The two have been friends since Bobby’s family started visiting Rumson Lake years ago. As luck would have it, Bobby is hit with more bad news as Joanie announces she’ll be leaving summer camp for a few weeks for an undisclosed reason.
My favorite scenes in the film are the ones between Bobby and veteran actor Donald Sutherland as Dr. Kahn, a Wall Street executive who spends each summer at his sprawling estate. He hires Bobby to manage the grounds paying him just $2.00 per hour. He’s a stern employer who becomes Bobby’s mentor by dispensing advice that doesn’t necessarily solve the teenager’s problems but it’s invaluable nonetheless. Sutherland is only in a handful of scenes, but they are special moments that standout as Dr. Kahn becomes Bobby’s father figure in the coming-of-age story.
There are some differences between Lipsyte’s young adult novel and the screenplay by David Scearce. The timeline shifts from the 50’s to the 70’s and Bobby gains self-confidence without dropping a lot of weight as in the novel. Sure we’ve seen these familiar themes before but “Measure of a Man” comes highly recommended thanks to Blake Cooper’s impressive portrayal of an awkward teen who becomes a young man.
(3 ½ stars)
Now playing in Austin at Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills