Rating: 4 out of 5
In an ordinary romantic comedy or drama, the focus after the loss of a wife and mother could be on how a grieving widower finds love again, or how his precocious children help him get over his pain.
But that’s not how things work out in The Boys are Back, an excellent family drama directed by Scott Hicks (Shine). In fact, things rarely work out smoothly in this uncommonly sensitive, moving and engaging film.
Based on the memoir of journalist Simon Carr, this story about an Australia-based British sportswriter, Joe (Clive Owen), who becomes a single dad after his second wife dies of cancer, is remarkable for its attention to detail, dedication to characterisation, and keen eye for authenticity.
Its characters don’t seem to pander to the whims of a script bent on delivering a specific message, and they oftentimes act unpredictably in a true-to-life manner.
This is a film where mistakes in life, the ones we all make at some point or other, to varying degrees, tend to be committed and sometimes repeated. Here, both father and son are prone to tantrums and bouts of sulking. There are misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and things not said or said wrongly.
Life lessons take a long time to be absorbed, and impasses take a while to overcome, not because the film needs to be a certain length or filled with a certain number of obstacles before its conclusion, but because that’s how life and human nature can be.
This is precisely the kind of realism here that is so hard to capture on film.
Even the ‘hero’ Joe isn’t much of a father or a man, by society’s standards. He’d abandoned his first wife, and a young son, to be with his second wife, whom he’d fallen for, had an affair with, and gotten pregnant.
Now, he is suddenly the lone parent and saddled with his six-year-old second son, Artie, for whom he’d had limited responsibilities—and practically no real relationship—thus far.
Owen makes Joe someone worth rooting for because we know for a fact that he is an unabashedly flawed individual who could have taken the easy way out and dumped his child with his in-laws, but instead decides that the buck stops here. He’s made his bed in life, and he’s going to have to lie in it.
Joe is written with deep layers, as he is plagued by internal strife, worrying about his son’s ability to grieve, their future together, and whether he can be a good father despite his own distaste for rules.
Things get even more complicated when his oldest son Harry, now an emotionally complex teenager—aren’t they all?—comes to live with him, and Joe has two relationships to build while balancing his work and his new life at home.
One can never accuse Owen of shirking from a challenge. As one of the best leading men around, he deserves credit for not settling for formulaic films—cookie-cutter romantic comedies, for instance—and instead choosing roles, like this one, that stretch his range.
For delivering a heartfelt and satisfying film, much credit must also go to the director Hicks, who keeps the focus firmly on the characters and lets them generate the momentum for the story.
Further kudos go to the two young actors who play Harry (George Mackay) and Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), who appear natural and are never too cute or clever. With Owen, they are a formidable cast.
On paper, a drama about a man and his two boys finding ways to bond as a family may seem dry subject matter. But Hick’s beautifully shot film—a love letter to South Australia—traces the vagaries of life with such unerring accuracy that one cannot turn away from its unflinching honesty.
It is a near-masterpiece, a true credit to all involved, and one of the best films of the year so far.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
-- Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III