Outside Providence is one of those curious little movies that perfectly captures a moment in time and place. Written by Peter Farrelly (and based on his novel of the same name), it’s a fictionalized account of his own childhood, a raucous charmer of a movie that uses several of the conventional plot tropes but injects it with enough heart and humor to keep it fresh and entertaining. It’s perhaps one of the Farrelly brothers least-watched and most underrated works, but one of their finest, most mature pictures to date.
Directed by Michael Corrente, Outside Providence stars Shawn Hatosy as Timothy Dunphy — “Dildo” to his father, “Dunph” to his friends. He’s a blue collar kid from Pawtucket, RI, a shiftless, drifting kid with little ambition and less common sense. One night after a drunken night partying with his friends, he rear ends a police car. Given the choice between a year in jail or a year at a local prestigious boarding school (Cornwall Academy, subbing for the real-life Kent Academy), Dunph’s itinerant, coarse father (Alec Baldwin) ships him off to finish his senior year of high school. Shortly after his arrival, Dunph finds his place among the schools minor fuckups, including the preppy Jack Wheeler (Gabriel Mann), Billy Fu, the resident rich kid whose father bought his admission (Alex Toma) and the charmingly nicknamed Jizz (Jack Ferver). They quickly bond over a love of booze and smoking weed and a disdain for classes and rules, represented beautifully by Dean Mort (George Martin), and Dunph’s dorm master Funderburk (Tim Crowe). He also quickly finds himself falling for Jane Weston (Amy Smart), “the coolest girl in school,” and getting into and out of (and into again) trouble with the school’s establishment.
If the plot sounds familiar and well-tread, well, it should. Fundamentally, there’s little here conceptually that you haven’t seen or read before. What separates it from the pack are the vivid characterizations that feel real without feeling dull. Hatosy (seriously, what happened to this kid? He’s had nary a first-tier role in the decade since) is excellent as Dunph — a generally good kid who, through a combination of laziness and recklessness, can’t seem to get out of his own way. His relationship with Jane is an honest look at teenage awkwardness — his idea of flirting is sneaking whiskey into her Coke while getting a ride from her parents. Yet he’s just endearing enough to catch her eye. Similarly, his friends, both back in Pawtucket as well as at Cornwall, are just unusual enough to be believably enjoyable, without resorting to too many cliches. The fish-out-of-water motif isn’t abused — if anything, the film instead paints a more realistic portrayal of the school. I’m a lifelong public school kid myself, but I don’t believe for a second that the depictions of the kids isn’t spot on. They’re not simply a collection of smarmy, TMJ-afflicted, snooty brats. Instead, they like to drink and smoke and fuck around as the next kid — they just have the benefit of the safety net that a wealthy family can bring.
Dunph’s life in Pawtucket is where the film truly shines, due entirely to excellent writing and outstanding performances by the supporting players. His wheelchair-bound brother, Jackie (Tommy Bone) isn’t played for sympathy. He’s a real kid who wants to hang with his brother while avoiding being a burden. Dunph’s attitude to his brother is to treat him exactly — exactly — as he would any other kid. When his brother asks if the reason they’re not being picked up as they try to hitchhike to a Patriots game is due to the wheelchair, Dunph spares no sympathy. It’s a moment of tough honesty that’s also just teeters on the edge of sentimental, a delicate balance if there ever was one. Of course, the star of the supporting cast is Alec Baldwin, as Dunph’s boorish old man who tries to keep his kids in line without any real understanding of parenting. His delivery is wry and resigned, a regular guy stuck with two kids and no idea how to handle them outside of gruff, tough love. His combination of abrupt, harsh criticism and unsteady, curious advice (“Making sex is like Chinese dinner. It ain’t over till you both get your cookies… Remember that I said that”) helped him steal the movie (as did a surprisingly intense performance by George Wendt as one of his poker buddies).
The setting is another unusual success for the film. One wouldn’t pick 1974 Pawtucket as an optimal setting for a coming of age tale, and yet it works perfectly, particularly if you have any experience growing up in the New England area. The accents are hit or miss, but they get it right just enough to help the viewer feel like they’re seeing this strange little slice of New England, and it helps that they nail the regional colloquialisms. It doesn’t make the blue collar neighborhoods (it’s filmed entirely in Rhode Island) too dreary and grim, instead injecting it and its denizens with a lively, if somewhat rundown, personality that reflects the local color. Instead of taking the easy way and making it a poor kids versus rich kids tale, it focuses more on Dunph’s inner growth, using Jane as a foil for his maturation.
Jane isn’t a stock character either (they thankfully spared us from her having an asshole boyfriend, an overused and irritating concept in most films in the genre), she’s a smart, ambitious girl who also happens to like having a good time. Their romance isn’t a teary, starry-eyed affair filled with excessive dramatics and declarations of love and those goofy-assed “time stopped and music crescendoed when they kissed” moments. Instead, it’s exactly what it should be — full of youthful curiosity, stumbling flirtatiousness and a healthy sense of exuberance. While characters like Dunph’s stalwart, dimwitted friend Drugs Delaney (Jon Abraham) sometimes push the limits of believability, they rein it in just enough — kids like Drugs absolutely exist… they just tweaked him a bit. Dunph’s friends are perhaps losers — aimless stoners without direction or any semblance of foresight — but they’re funny, tightly-knit and fiercely loyal to each other.
The movie isn’t without faults, and they’re the usual ones that I find with Farrelly brothers productions. The humor gets a little too low brow at times (seriously, building a bong out of a tree? That’s just stupid. Not that I would know anything about that), but it mostly avoids the gross out humor and outright slapstick that has since begun to sabotage the Farrelly brothers. The Farrelly brothers’ shtick got pretty old, pretty fast — after the monster hit that they had with There’s Something About Mary and the underground success of Dumb and Dumber, they’ve been on a downward slide (although I am partial to Me, Myself and Irene). Outside Providence is one of their bright spots.
Outside Providence is one more entry in the seemingly endless series of coming-of-age, all-ends-well stories that pervade Hollywood teenage movies. It saves itself with clever writing, a wicked sense of humor, standout performances and a surprisingly gentle soul. It’s coarse, crude and rife with nonstop drug and alcohol abuse — in short, much like the lives of many real-world teenagers. It’s that refreshing frankness that kicks it up to the top of the pile. By avoiding the insipid, cloying sentimentality of a lot of its contemporaries, Outside Providence succeeds in being realistic yet entertaining, crass yet absorbing tale that, while occasionally flawed, still manages to be deeply satisfying.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.