Fat Kid Rules the World
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Starring Jacob Wysocki, Matt O’Leary, Billy Campbell
Release Date: January 22, 2013
Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki) is a high school student living with his widowed ex-Marine father (Billy Campbell) and younger brother Dayle (Dylan Arnold) in metropolitan Seattle. He is depressed most of the time because he is grossly overweight, has no friends, and never seems to have the approval of his family. One day Troy decides to end it all and walks in front of an oncoming city bus only to be pushed out of the way at the last minute by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a strung-out teen about his age. Marcus was expelled from Troy’s school but continues to hang out there and spends most of his time angling to become a punk rock star. But his old band P.O.I. wants nothing more to do with him and his hedonistic antics.
Marcus latches onto the shy and insecure Troy and convinces him to join his new band the Tectonics as the drummer. Troy reluctantly agrees out of fear of losing the only real friend he has had in years and once exposed to the music and punk club scene Marcus inhabits he begins to emerge from his shell and unearth his inner rocker. Troy’s father, who has also bonded somewhat with Marcus, sees his son’s new friend for what he really is: a junkie and an opportunist. Troy isn’t ready to write off Marcus just yet so he conspires to make the Tectonics a real thing and in the process try to save his friend from continuing down the path of self-destruction.
Fat Kid Rules the World really took me by surprise. I went into it expecting a disposable mumblecore teen flick and was honestly moved by what I saw. Matthew Lillard of Scream and the Scooby-Doo movies made his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of an acclaimed young adult novel – first published in 2003 by KL Going and written for the screen by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman – and he really knocked it out of the park his first (and hopefully not last) time at bat. Financed independently with advertising and distribution funded by over $150K in Kickstarter donations, Fat Kid is an remarkable coming of age story that isn’t afraid to take darker directions that typical studio fare could fathom and explore its characters with real depth and honesty. Lillard steers clear of the typical teen movie tropes and chose some genuinely terrific actors to work with in bringing the characters from Going’s original novel to life as authentic human beings rather than shallow archetypes and plot motivators.
First there’s Jacob Wysocki, and despite what you might think he is no acting newcomer. Wysocki previously appeared in movies like Pitch Perfect and the critically-hailed 2011 indie Terri, the latter of which I really need to see. He’s also a member of the comedy troupe the Bath Boys. Here he doesn’t dominate the story but he does provide it with a reliable and sympathetic anchor character (and that’s not a jab at his weight) that keeps things from becoming too dreary or melodramatic. There isn’t a single moment in Fat Kid where your heart doesn’t instantly go out to Troy because he’s the kind of sweet, interesting kid who should have way more friends than he does. Troy initially strikes you as a teenager who would be happy if the other kids at his school bullied him because then at least that meant someone was paying attention to him. He just wants to have people in his life who won’t take him for granted. You feel for him throughout his struggle to learn the drums, earn his father’s trust, and save the life of his friend. It’s a winning performance.
This was the first time since Frailty – another movie directed by an actor, and in this case Bill Paxton – that I was impressed by a performance from Matt O’Leary. I’ve seen him in other films like Death Sentence, the recent Mother’s Day remake, and Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick, but in Fat Kid O’Leary was given the rare opportunity of playing a really interesting and fleshed-out character. Marcus is one of those guys who looks like he would make a good friend but most people would cross the street to avoid, and that’s exactly the way he prefers it to be. I could relate to Marcus not because he and I share common characteristics, but rather because I have been close to people like him. O’Leary’s performance is energetic, humorous, and extraordinarily sad at times. He makes you love, or at the very least – tolerate Marcus for his innate sweetness and charm even though he would easily take advantage of your friendship to suit his own ends. The chemistry between Wysocki and O’Leary provides the film with its beating heart, and the scene where Troy’s angry drum riff “Fat Kid’s Revenge” inspires Marcus out of his drug-induced stupor to pick up his guitar and start creating again is one of the most affecting movie moments of recent years.
Billy Campbell provides immeasurable support as Troy’s stern but loving father. It’s not rare for the father figures in coming of age stories to be hardasses incapable of showing any love for their offspring, but Campbell’s performance infuses the character of Mr. Billings with a fresh modern perspective. He seems aloof in his exchanges with Troy and not surprisingly favors his healthier, more outgoing younger son Dayle (Arnold in an affecting piece of acting that greatly improves in the third act). As the story progresses it becomes clear that tragic events of the past has affected every member of their tight-knit family emotionally and Troy’s father only does what he believes is in his son’s best interest. He acts realistically in the situation, exercising caution at first but eventually becoming supportive of Troy’s musical ambitions and reluctantly embracing Marcus as a friend and surrogate son. He even buys Troy a sweet-looking drum kit. Campbell is given license to explore every shade of the father’s personality and the result is one of the best performances of this underrated actor’s out of the ordinary career.
Lili Simmons (as Isabel, a fellow student Troy befriends), Sean Donovan (as Ollie, a local club owner who becomes Troy’s disinclined drum instructor at Marcus’ insistence), Tyler Trerise (as Manoj, a childhood friend of Troy’s who grew apart from him as they aged into young adulthood), and Russell Hodgkinson (as Marcus’ perpetually weary and pissed stepfather) all back up the principal actors with some memorable little supporting turns. The final moments of Fat Kid Rules the World will bring a huge smile to your face (unless you are a complete cynic) because it manages to wrap up the story in a way that feels designed to please the audience but still stays true to its characters and the journey they have all taken together.
Presented in its original 1.78:1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio, Fat Kid Rules the World looks terrific. The image quality is very clear with crisp picture details and a muted color scheme that serves the film very well. No subtitles are provided.
Though the picture looks sharp, the sound is another thing. Our only audio option is an English 5.1 Dolby track. The music score and original songs are pitched at the best volume level, but the dialogue is often mixed so low you would have to turn the volume up louder just to hear what everyone is saying. Then the music kicks in again and you almost lose your sense of sound.
Previews for Nitro Circus: The Movie 3D and Greystone Park automatically play when you load the disc. Five behind-the-scenes featurettes, totaling 17 minutes, cover various aspects of the production in brief through interviews and video production footage. Something more substantial would have been nice, but whatever. A trailer for the movie closes out the extras.
A coming of age story of a different kind, Fat Kid Rules the World is an ebullient cinematic treasure with fine performances and a story that feels honest and as true to real life as movies are allowed to get these days. The audio quality and lack of substantial extras on this DVD makes it a questionable recommendation, but the movie is so good that if you can find this disc cheap you would not regret giving picking it up. This is one of the best undervalued films I’ve come across in recent years.