SXSW Review: Five Time Champion
Deciding which movies to see at film festivals can be a crap shoot. Some incessantly hyped films with great pedigrees can be enormously disappointing. On the other hand, some largely unpublicized films don't come across well in trailers and synopses, so you skip them, only to hear later that you missed a truly great time at the movies. Still others seem worth a look, so you give them a chance and discover that they are, well, worth a look, but not memorable.
And then there are rare indie gems like Five Time Champion that remind you why you go to film festivals.
Be prepared for a gushing review of this stellar film, one of the best I've seen in ages. Oh, if only all movies were such a pleasure to review; the greatest challenge in reviewing Five Time Champion, which had its world premiere at the Paramount on March 12, may be finding enough superlatives to describe its many charms without being repetitive.
Set and filmed in Austin and Smithville, Texas, Five Time Champion is equal parts teen romance, coming of age story and commentary about the complicated nature of relationships at every stage in life. The protagonist is 13-ish Julius (Ryan Akin), a smart, scientifically gifted kid who's in the awkward throes of sexual exploration with his girlfriend, Shiley (Noell Coet). Complicating matters are the obvious charms of his classmate Teena (Gabi Walker), who's ready to take Shiley's place at the first available opportunity. Further complicating matters is Julius's general ambivalence toward sex; he wonders if he's gay, especially since his long-gone father, Harold (Robert Longstreet), is rumored to have left his mother for another man. Julius's confusion about his own sexual orientation leads to horrifying self-destructive behavior.
When given a chance to attend a prestigious science-oriented school, Julius also must make an important decision about his academic future. And he longs to get to know his father again, largely to find out if the rumors are true.
As if his own love life isn't stressful enough, Julius is also less than thrilled that his mother, Danielle (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), is dating his goofily stereotypical school principal, Melvin Glee (hilariously played by Jon Gries). While trying to keep her struggling taxidermy business afloat, Danielle also is fending off unwanted advances from Levi (Justin Arnold), a well meaning but unsophisticated family friend at least 15 years her junior. Meanwhile, Julius's grandparents, Fran (Betty Buckley) and Alwyn (Don Pirl) have a relationship that's no less complicated, as Alwyn spends a lot of time helping his ailing longtime friend, Betty (Juli Erickson).
Assembling these three separate and yet intertwined stories and a dozen or so major characters into a coherent whole can be a tall order, but writer and director Berndt Mader has done a terrific job in piecing together Five Time Champion's many moving parts. Much of the credit goes to Mader's tightly written script. When it's funny, it's uproariously so. (One of my favorite gags involves an erectile dysfunction drug. Another is a scene in which the not-so-athletic Julius plays baseball for the first time.) When the script is poignant, it studiously avoids being cloying; there are many quietly reflective scenes that engender great sympathy for the characters without movie-of-the-week melodrama. The script also is astutely observational about relationships, perfectly capturing the hormone-fueled maelstrom of teenage lust and love, the agonizing pressures of middle age, when financial needs and fear of loneliness can complicate relationships even further, and the bittersweet reflection of old age, when we realize that some old flames never die.
Mader's direction is every bit as exceptional as his script. Five Time Champion is perfectly paced, slipping easily between its many moods, from awkward conversations to mild slapstick comedy to fearless explorations of life's most painful truths. Not a moment is wasted or a cadence missed; the action zips along when it needs to and slows down when events call for a thoughtful pause or two.
The cast is an interesting mix of veterans with decades of experience and newcomers with only a credit or two on IMDB. Five Time Champion is the rare film in which the casting is universally correct and the performances universally natural and superb, with nary a false note from anyone. Akin plays Julius with just the right combination of nerdiness, self doubt and adolescent bravado and rebellion, confidently anchoring the film without overshadowing his equally strong costars. Coet is entirely believable as Shiley, the sort of smart, pretty girl who drives boys like Julius crazy, but is so genuinely nice that she really doesn't mean to. (I knew a few Shileys back in the day. They're the major reason why you couldn't pay me to be 13 again.)
Wheeler-Nicholson's Danielle also is spot on, a perfect embodiment of the tired, debt-ridden, dedicated single mother we all know, more focused on doing right for her son than doing right for herself. Gries's take on Melvin is a comic tour de force, but of course you knew that if you've seen him in other roles. What you may not know is that Melvin arguably is the film's most sympathetic character also. Yes, he's in many ways a caricature of a school administrator, with his laughable attempts to exert authority and complete ineptitude at relating to adolescents. But he's also a man in deep denial about much of his life, including his relationship with Danielle. As a foil for Melvin and would-be mentor for Julius, Arnold is also perfect as the simple but admirably sincere Levi.
Five Time Champion also benefits greatly from the talents of stage, film and television veteran Buckley. As Fran, she's the film's most self-assured character, a family matriarch whose solemn wisdom no doubt has held the clan together through many painful times. Pirl is also terrific as Fran's husband, Alwyn, a gruff but benevolent grandpa who, like the rest of the family, has his own wounds to bind.
Again, I cannot praise Five Time Champion highly enough. An exceptional movie in every way, it's a must-see at SXSW and, if there is any justice in the world of cinema, a work destined to become a classic.
Austin connections: Five Time Champion was shot in Austin and the cast and crew are primarily local. The film won a Texas Filmmakers Production Fund grant.
Five Time Champion is screening again on Thursday, March 17 at 9 pm at the Rollins Theatre.