Many and widely varyied in quality are coming-of-age films charting the journey of a troubled teen from the world of the lonely outsider to a member of a small but vibrant alternative society offering acceptance, excitement and pride in weirdo geekdom. But I’ve rarely seen one that captures punk rock as the ideal vehicle for this trip as well as Matthew Lillard’s Fat Kid Rules the World.
Based on the 2003 young adult novel by KL Going, the movie made its premier at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year. I missed it there, and its limited release came and went quicker than a hardcore punk tune. But I finally caught up with it last weekend after watching Lillard talk about his decade-in-the-making labor of love in a brief preview for Comcast On Demand.
Lillard, 42, probably is best known for Scream or playing Shaggy in the 2002 Scooby-Doo film (though he also appeared in the much cooler SLC Punk). You’d think from these credits that he’d be an unlikely choice to capture the subtly poignant tale of Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki), a 296-pound Seattle teen who’s saved from committing suicide by a homeless, drug-addicted, gay-prostitute guitarist and songwriter (Chicagoan Matt O’Leary), who further saves him/takes advantage of him by prompting him to learn to play drums for a technically non-existent band.
Yet Lillard has made a brilliant and touching film, one that provides a male answer to classics in the genre such as Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. And it’s all the more surprising for the fact that its indie budget could only afford pretty much unknown music on the soundtrack (with the exception of a memorable cameo by X’s “The Hungry Wolf,” rightly hailed by O’Leary’s character as one of the best album-openers ever).
Now, as might be obvious to anyone who’s ever read any of my Vortis Diaries, I’ve got a very personal connection to the tale of a fat kid who discovers a bigger, better world by playing the drums. But the strength of the movie is that you never have had to deal with learning how not to hit yourself in the eye with your drum stick or the value of having a strong-enough drum throne, as Troy does, to appreciate the freedom that making art with others — whether it’s filmmaking, theater or playing an instrument as loud, hard and fast as possible — represents at a particularly vulnerable time in your life.
“At some point, all of us were that kid,” as O’Leary said in that Comcast clip.
The other actors perfectly compliment the two teen leads; particularly strong are Billy Campbell (last seen as the creepy Seattle politician in AMC’s The Killing) as Troy’s equally wounded dad and the unknown Megan Day as the aspiring drummer’s biggest fan. Screenwriters Michael Galvin and Peter Speakman are adept at conveying both the pathos and the humor in the story, and the rainy-day cinematography frames the tale perfectly.
The only real misstep is the cheesy “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” rooftop concert climax. But you can not only tolerate but actually long for a little bit of cheese after spending 90 minutes rooting for an antihero for whom nothing until that point has come easily or had the faintest whiff of triumph.
The fact is, despite all the amputations, as Lou Reed famously sang, rock ’n’ roll still has the power to save your life. And that’s a story that never gets old.
(Watch the trailer here, or better yet, find the movie and just try not to love it as much as I do, I dare ya.)