It would be so easy for Fat Kid Rules the World to take the easy way out. The film deals with high school terror, loneliness, and the frustrating way that caring for someone means giving them the power to break your heart: in other words, everything you’ve seen probably hundreds of times over. But Matthew Lillard, in his first turn as a director, taps into real pain and genuine joy in a deft exploration of the awkward relationship forged by two people who had given up on ever finding anything good in the world. What makes the film so wonderful is precisely the way it takes those old dramedy tropes and grounds them in utterly believable characters. These people are not archetypes, or examples. They come alive like the best film characters do, and you ache and celebrate with them at every turn. The script from Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going, is hilarious and touching in equal measure, and the film thoroughly earns its uplifting ending.
The film also marks a career high point for Lillard, who proved in The Descendants that he’s far more talented and interesting than you’d expect of the star from more youth-skewering titles like Scream and two (seriously) Scooby-Doo movies. He’s got a great sense of empathy that allows him to find the emotional core of the characters and bring out some wonderfully raw performances. Punch lines are played for a mix of humor and heartache, while many dramatic moments that could have been embarrassing or broad work because they’re anchored visually and narratively to understandable people.
Here’s a good example: Troy Billings (Jacob Wysocki), an obese high schooler, often finds himself slipping into daydreams that echo his hopes and fears or being slapped by he sudden recurrence of uncomfortable memories. The action often blends seamlessly between reality and imagination, but the surreality of the fictions and the abruptness of the flashbacks always work because Lillard so totally puts us in Troy’s mind that we never question them. When Troy mentions to a friend that his worst periods are gym and shop, we get a smash cut to Troy getting smacked in the face by a volleyball or blowing up a sander. They’re quick, punchy jokes that don’t overstay their welcome or disrupt the flow; if anything, they serve to underscore the way Troy can never outrun his life, no matter how much he wants to. These moments are clever, but they don’t make any attempt to pander or call attention to their cleverness. They’re just organically part of the story and its emotional direction.
One day, Troy daydreams of jumping in front of a bus. Worse: he actually steps in front of one, intent on killing himself. He’s saved by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a junkie and high school dropout who plays in local punk bands and mostly lives on the street. Marcus promptly asks Troy for $20 as a reward or saving his life; Troy, clearly terrified of human contact with someone outside his family or school life, gives over what he has and takes off. This is the beginning of their awkward time together, with Marcus periodically showing up at school to cadge a few bucks from Troy for food or drugs. Marcus also convinces Troy to join a new band with him, though Troy’s sole musical experience is badly playing the bass drum in he marching band. They spend the bulk of the film trying to get their new outfit, The Tectonics, off the ground. Things, as you’d think, do not always go as planned.
Time and again, what saves the film is Lillard’s refusal to let the central characters become predictable props. Troy’s dad (Billy Campell) is a former Marine with a high-and-tight haircut and a grim view of his son’s weight and hobbies (which mainly include playing an online game modeled after World of Warcraft). Yet Mr. Billings clearly loves his son, and when Marcus begins showing up at their house, his instinct for protection battles his desire for compassion. He doesn’t want his son conned by a burnout, but he also doesn’t want to subject said burnout to any undue pain. He allows Marcus to come to dinner. He lets Troy spend time with Marcus under certain circumstances. He’s a parent, not a cartoon, and he’s one of the many characters that make the film work.
The story looks small on paper: lonely kid makes weird friend, complicated relationship ensues, minor changes happen. Yet Lillard’s film often feels epic because he communicates just how grand and seemingly life-and-death the moments of our youth can feel when we’re living them. He also gets some wonderful performances from his actors. Campbell is nicely rounded, firm but fair, and there are moments of such demonstrated yet unspoken love between him and Troy that it’s a miracle they don’t feel forced or unnatural. As Troy, Wysocki (formerly of ABC Family’s “Huge”) lives in small expressions and furtive stares, as if he can’t wait to get out of whatever conversation he’s having and hide in his room where no one can look at him or judge him. Yet of the cast, it’s O’Leary as Marcus who stands out. There’s a desperate edge to his humor that’s undercut by the moments in which Marcus stops putting on a show and allows himself to admit that he’s tired, lonely, and unsure of what to do with himself. He starts out using Troy for cash, and Troy sees a similar opportunity to break out of the empty life he’s built for himself. But they both wind up with so much more. Fat Kid Rules the World is one of the most authentic, moving high school stories in a long time. In an era of gin-soaked horrors like Project X, it’s glorious to see that there are still people out there willing to tell real stories of heartbreak and victor, and that those stories will always and forever outshine the rest.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.