Everyone’s met a guy like Troy. You know the type: that out-of-shape loner you went to high school with, the one most people over-looked or outright ignored. He spent late nights all by himself, planted at his computer, chowing down on day-old pizza while cruising Orgrimmar for elf-tail. Truth is, you probably knew a guy like Marcus too. He was that incredibly alluring – but stinky – guitarist who lurked around campus long after he dropped out. It might have been your misfortune to let him crash on your sofa while he was down on his luck. Thankfully, he moved out yesterday. But you’d probably never expect two guys so dissimilar to become best friends, right?
When introduced to our protagonist, Troy (skillfully played by the young Jacob Wysocki), we find him despondent and worn-out, contemplating suicide at a bus stop. As he imagines himself taking a bloody leap into oncoming traffic, the audience is privy to his musings, which are played straight and without prelude. If not for the homeless, disheveled Marcus (Matt O’Leary), Troy might become a human pancake. But neither feels particularly romantic about their chance meeting. Troy runs away in embarrassment, and Marcus charges afterward, demanding a $20 reward. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Against his father’s will, Troy accepts Marcus’ invitation to start up a punk band. Troy’s ignorance is adorable, but he soon realizes this is one of Marcus’ many ploys to mooch free food and prescription meds. Still, Marcus’ lectures in punk speak to Troy, and their forbidden excursions to dive bars and concerts renew him. As the title indicates, their mutual goal of playing a local club revitalizes his desire to rule his own world.
One can’t imagine the adjectives cute, adorable or charming being applied to the vainglorious punks and punkettes of Sid & Nancy (1986), Jubilee (1978), or The Return of the Living Dead (1985). I, myself, use those words as sparingly as possible. But on occasion, I happen upon a movie that appeals to that sentimental side I’ve tried so hard to repress. Whether or not Fat Kid Rules the World intends to be schmaltzy, its charm is undeniable. But let’s face it, life as a fat kid isn’t always cute. I should know. I wasn’t a punk, a steam punk, or even a cyberpunk, but I was a fat kid. So, I approached Fat Kid with some trepidation.
Despite my reservations about the film, it spoke to me on multiple levels. I empathized with its protagonist, understood his desire to be seen, and with retrospect on my side, I was able to better appreciate the film’s more sadistically humorous moments. While the title may suggest otherwise, Fat Kid is neither heartwarming family fair nor is it your typical corny teen melodrama. Though it explores well-charted territory, the film proves itself a fresh take on the “high-school outsider” dramedy, a popular sub-genre characterized by films like Heathers (1988), Election (1999), and Mean Girls (2004).
Fat Kid is also an earnest directorial debut from actor Matthew Lillard, who is perhaps best known for his energetic performances as a movie-obsessed psychopath in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and a blue-haired anarchist in James Marendino’s SLC Punk! (1998). Younger viewers will remember Lillard as Shaggy in the live-action Scooby Doo films. And recently, Lillard gained recognition for his role in Alexander Payne’s acclaimed 2011 film, The Descendants. But as this film suggests, Lillard is possibly even better behind the camera.
Although Fat Kid’s setting has been casually changed from New York to Seattle, Lillard’s film is a faithful adaptation of K. L. Going’s 2003 young-adult novel by the same name. Here, Going’s award-winning saga of adolescence, teen angst, and punk music has been rejuvenated with an unpretentious and youthful approach.
The film’s lead, Jacob Wysocki, delivers a resounding performance, and his character’s transformation from lump to dynamo is rendered with great authenticity. Matt O’Leary is also quite convincing as the unscrupulous but charismatic young vagabond, Marcus. But TV actor Billy Campbell is, perhaps, most notable here for his astounding performance as Troy’s uptight ex-military father.
Lillard’s treatment of outsider characters and the unexpected way he depicts the high school experience is also commendable. In opposition to most teenage comedies, which present a populace of witty juveniles with bleach-white teeth and color-coordinated wardrobes, Lillard provides a more realistic look at today’s youth and their struggles. But in terms of character development, the film is also strangely uneven at times, overlooking its protagonist and baiting us with some serious questions regarding representation.
Unfortunately, the film does not seem to favor its protagonist, and while Wysocki does some amazing work here, his performance is not dynamic enough to restore the balance. This isn’t Wysocki’s fault, of course, as the cards are stacked against him. Here, the focus of the narrative doesn’t lie with its lead. Though we certainly sense Troy’s desire to be admired and acknowledged by his classmates, his muted personality is totally eclipsed when paired with the magnetic Marcus. In this way, Troy’s character works almost anecdotally to highlight the film’s truer love: that is, the punk lifestyle.
In many ways, Fat Kid is a film with an identity crisis. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or whose story it wants to tell. This is reflected stylistically by way of an effective and entertaining stream-of-consciousness approach that is dropped abruptly when Marcus’ character is introduced. In terms of content, it is perhaps too risqué to be family-oriented and too tame to provoke adult viewers. Despite all this, its pleasures outnumber its flaws. And ultimately, Matthew Lillard’s film is a fun and honest journey.
Published December 3, 2012.
Benjamin Barbour received his B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he double majored in English and Film & Television Production. He is currently an M.F.A. Film & Television Production student, as well as an M.A. Cinema Studies student at SCAD. His life-long passion (and obsession) has been the study and making of horror films. He aspires to teach, write, and direct.