By Brandon Konecny.
There’s a scene in Measure of a Man where Bobby (Blake Cooper) bickers with his sister Michelle (Liana Liberato) after she knocked the scoop off his chocolate-dipped ice cream cone. A shirtless Pete Marino (Luke Benward) interrupts their squabbling and introduces himself to Michelle. This leads to a series of awkward pauses, bad James Bond jokes, and hackneyed, cool-guy phrases. When Michelle tells Pete she’ll be at camp all summer, he runs his fingers through his hair, conducts a toe-to-brow survey of Michelle’s body, and concludes his examination with “nice.” Bobby scoffs and says to himself “oh, come on,” returning to his now-decapitated ice cream cone.
These kinds of clichés abound in Jim Loach’s Measure of a Man, which comes eight years after his celebrated debut Oranges and Sunshine (2010). It’s a film where bullies respond, “it’s a free country” after being shooed away by a camp counselor. It’s a film where an adolescent boy tells his unduly protective mother, “I’m not your little boy anymore.” It’s a film where a brother asks his sister to tell him, “everything’s going to be okay” after learning about their parents’ marital problems. Like Bobby, it might be tempting to hear these lines and remark, “oh, come on.”
Based on Robert Lipsyte’s 1977 novel One Fat Summer, the film takes place in 1976 and concerns Bobby, an overweight 14-year-old who’s the only one in his family who doesn’t look forward to the summer. For Bobby, summer means getting fat-shamed by local bullies, finding ways to conceal his weight during outdoor activities, being jealous of muscled male camp counselors, and having to put up with fights between his controlling father and second-wave feminist mother (Luke Wilson and Judy Greer). But what seems to be an already foredoomed summer turns worse when he learns that Judy (Danielle Rose Russell), his best friend and clandestine crush, will be absent for most of the season. Plus, his father starts evading his mother, and Michelle begins sneaking out at night for some necking and petting with Pete. All this signals one thing to Bobby – things are changing.
Rather than brood the whole summer, Bobby takes a job tending a large, lakefront estate owned by a demanding Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland). Given his lack of experience, uncallused hands, and endomorphic build, it’s a job for which Bobby is direly underqualified and Dr. Kahn knows it. Predictably enough, he purposely subjects Bobby to his exacting standards and hard-bargaining tactics to instill something in him that his father hasn’t: a spine. And while this mentorship may seem a bit underdeveloped by the film’s conclusion, it constitutes one of Measure of a Man’s best pleasures. It imbues Bobby with courage and wisdom to deal with his parents’ turbulent marriage and local bullies like Willie (Beau Knapp).
None of this is particularly remarkable within the coming-of-age genre, what with its emphasis on social alienation and personal growth. But there are parts of the film which are refreshing, such as its focus on class antagonisms, antisemitism, sexual repression, homosexuality, and Dr. Kahn’s mentorship of Bobby. But these moments are peripheral, at best, and exist uncomfortably alongside others that are rather heavy handed. Take, for example, the scene where Judy and Bobby find shed snakeskin in the lake. There, the two teens ponder over how a snake could leave behind a piece of itself and say things like, “it’s not like it has a choice. It has to shed its skin to grow.” The metaphor here is blindingly obvious, making these characters’ interpretive guidance unnecessary. This tendency to make every narrative detail explicit also appears in Bobby’s reflective voiceovers, often delivered over reverb-drenched, Julien Baker-style guitar noodling. All this suggests that screenwriter David Scearce and Loach underestimate their audience’s interpretive abilities, even within an already predictable genre.
Granted, these sitcom clichés might say something else about growing up. After all, adolescence is cliché. It’s something everyone goes through, and it’s something everyone accomplishes with embarrassing imprecision. In this sense, Pete’s garbled attempts to ape James Bond introductions echo our own hamfisted attempts to navigate the coordinates of this period. Does this account for all the film’s pitfalls? Certainly not. But for all the film’s faults, Loach is after something sincere here, and that much is admirable in a time when irony and self-absorption have become the order of the day. It’s just a shame that rather than clearing out a new area in which to express these well-intentioned concerns, he opts to hobble along a well-worn path, intermittently tossing impressive insights throughout the film rather than presenting them in a sustained manner.
Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.