Fat people have been an easily designated pop-culture caricature for ages, and as the title for Fat Kid Rules the World suggests, a day of reckoning may have come. But before we get into that, let’s deal with another caricature the movie destroys, movingly and particularly effectively: the conservative military dad.
We all know how this guy is supposed to be – a wanna-be drill instructor who whisper-rasps like Clint Eastwood when not yelling orders, could have sprung fully formed from R. Lee Ermey’s loins, and who’ll beat the gay out of his son if it comes to that, or, in American Beauty, shoot the next-door neighbor. Honestly, yes, it is hard for Hollywood to present a conservative military dude as a fully fleshed-out human, but director Matthew Lillard has done it here, using the Rocketeer himself, no less. Billy Campbell’s Mr. Billings may look like Beavis and Butt-head‘s Coach Buzzcut, say things like “Use your time wisely” with understated menace, make his kids run laps, and demand to see their friends’ drivers licenses so he can turn back to them and say, “I now know where you both live.” But beneath it all, this hard-nosed widower still loves his kids, and when he sees that the fat one is taking an interest in drums, despite the morally suspect baggage that comes with them in this case (keep reading, I’ll give you the context), he’s not the type of dude who’d discourage it; rather, he’ll encourage perfection in it. Campbell’s performance is one of the finest of the year, and probably won’t be duly recognized – except by those of you who check the movie out on the recommendation of people like me.
But back to the fat kid of the title. His name is Troy, and he’s played by Jacob Wysocki, who essentially walked this same overweight path in the less-entertaining Terri. Living in a quickly established dull routine, he plans on ending it all by stepping in front of a bus – which he imagines would splatter his guts gloriously; he’s prone to envisioning gory scenarios – only to be tackled out of danger by Marcus (former child actor Matt O’Leary), who promptly insists he is owed twenty bucks for the favor. Marcus, who attends the same high school as Troy despite having been expelled, is a wanna-be Kurt Cobain in every sense, and this seems fairly natural because, after all, we are in Seattle (the 2003 novel by K.L Going was actually set in New York, but inspired by the Seattle scene and its most famous prematurely dead icon). Marcus also seems like exactly the type of character Lillard would have played if this were still the ’90s.
There’s a dark side to this shaggy dude that’s fairly obvious – he can’t keep appointments, he’s full of nervous tics and mood swings, and he’s always looking for handouts or medicine cabinets to raid. The seasoned viewer will recognize the telltale signs of an addict instantly, but the more naive Troy does not, seeing only the cool dude who has taken an interest in him – and is now insisting they form a band together. When Marcus staples a pair of pants to Troy’s wall and calls it art, it feels to them like a most awesome act of counterculture, even as it may look a little silly, or like a waste of perfectly good clothes, to some of us. What the movie itself nails to the wall is that moment in youth where the drug dealers are still cool and anarchy is an ever-appealing alternative to parental authority. Those of us who have lived past that period know Troy may well be destined for some disappointment, and yet he needs to screw up in this way to help find himself. That his tight-ass dad clearly understands this too – while still being a tight-ass – is the brilliance of what Campbell and Lillard have pulled off in the father figure.
Both O’Leary and Wysocki suffer a bit from what I call Hollywood high-school syndrome, which is to say these guys look like they should be graduating college rather than portraying teens. The reason for these sorts of casting decisions, contrary to popular belief, is less about “sexiness” and more due to the perception that older actors have a better acting range, and can play the emotion better even if the look is a little off. That’s almost certainly the case here – there’s a maturity to the way O’Leary clearly knows the tricks of the junkie trade, and Wysocki manages to play Troy in a way that doesn’t make him out to be a typical movie underdog. Like Napoleon Dynamite (though less funny), he’s at least partially responsible for his own ostracism, and not always entirely likable, which makes the inevitable “be true to yourself” message play better than it so often does in bigger-budget productions. I may be showing my age when I say I wish the soundtrack of a music-themed movie set in Seattle were better, but Mike McCready and Whiskey Tango are certainly not considered slouches, so your mileage may vary.
Fat Kid Rules the World is now playing in limited release.