Starring: Soren Fulton, Matt Borish, Sam Semenza, Michael Dean, John Michael Bolger
Not Rated (Probable PG for Thematic Material, Rude Behavior including Drinking, all involving Young Teens)
With a movie like "Rounding First," you have to be a little forgiving. The film was clearly shot with no budget, which means that it had to have been made very quickly with a minimal crew. "Rounding First" has some problems, like stilted dialogue and some raw acting ("Confession," another fantastic no-budget movie, had some of the same problems), you'll find something much rarer and more valuable: good storytelling. I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch an unpolished movie like this that manages to really involve me than a professional one that doesn't.
The year is 1980. Joe Koerner (Fulton) is a 12-year-old who lives with his parents. He idolizes his older brother Tommy (Aaron Fiore), who is a scholar living in Europe, even though they have never met (they communicate by telephone and letter). However, his parents are constantly fighting. Things are worse for his best friend Tiger (Borish), whose brother is dead, his mother gone and his dad is an alcoholic cop (Bolger). To his surprise, Joe's parents have sent him to summer camp with Tiger (even though they think that he is a bad influence) and his other friend Chris (Semenza). Believing that his parents are getting divorced, Joe and his friends ditch camp and head to Philadelphia to stop them. Nothing will prepare them for the truth, however.
Beneath its rough exterior, "Rounding First" shows a surprising amount of depth and sophistication. It can rightfully be claimed a "coming of age story/road picture," but there is a complexity to the characters and the plot that really involved me. Writer/director Jim Fleigner (who appeared at the screening when I first saw this movie) doesn't force his characters to be dumb to move the plot along. Far from it in fact. These three are much smarter than anyone gives them credit for, although their knowledge of the world and their parents (or what they think they know of them) is limited. Fleigner finds a way to convey this in a refreshingly honest way.
There's also a considerable amount of buried pain in many of the characters. The reality of his parents splitting up terrifies Joe, particularly because of what happened to Tiger and his family. Tiger is the walking definition of a problem child, but considering his family situation, it's understandable, and he uses wisecracks and ferocity to mask the pain. For his part, Tiger's father Gene isn't as bad as he seems. He's a drunk who loves his son more than anything, even if he has trouble showing it. Only at the end do we fully understand him.
Also important is the guy who gives them a ride (Dean). Despite being an incompetent thief (at one point, he robs a gas station but forgets the cash), he's the only one who understands these kids and that they have brains and feelings too.
"Rounding First" contains some clunky lines and off acting, but that's counterbalanced by more than a few scenes that are truly wonderful. The interplay between the three friends is well-written and acted; I believed that they were friends and that they talked to each other this way. Gene also has some nice scenes as the cop who, despite everything, is still looking out for his son. And the relationship between Joe and Tommy feels honest and affecting.
Mention must be made about the film's climax. To call it perfect would understate matters. It's as shocking as the one in "Seven" with the emotional weight of the one in "Atonement." However, Fleigner doesn't try to blindside us. Looking back we can see that the pieces were there, but Fleigner has constructed the story in such a way that not only does the twist hold up in retrospect, we weren't expecting one. That kind of sleight-of-hand is something that eclipses even the most seasoned filmmakers.
Lest I make this seem like this is too mature or painful for the young ones, rest assured it is not. This is great family entertainment. And while the ending may be a gut punch that totally blindsides the viewer, the lasting impression is of a wonderful story about growing up that ends with a message of hope. A film that can do that deserves to be treasured.