Flipped flop

With high expectations resulting from the director’s body of work, Flipped fails to hit the mark

With only one hit film since the mid-90s — and that one being a cloying and artificial cancer comedy The Bucket List — Rob Reiner hopes to get his mojo back with Flipped, a return to the sometimes painful and sometimes poignant coming-of-age film he pulled off so splendidly in his 1986 film Stand By Me.

But what seemingly came easily more than two decades ago is now a struggle. Reiner, 63, again demonstrates compassion and insight into young people’s battles to acquire self-knowledge, but in his new film, too many clearly fictional characters and contrived situations bog down his story.

The period film also feels out of sorts with the kind of tweener film that succeeds at today’s box office. Indeed, Flipped so wallows in nostalgia with a soft-rock soundtrack from the late 50s/early 60s and a “Mad Men Goes to Main Street” look to cars, clothes and decor that the film’s main appeal probably will be to Baby Boomers — not the kind of demographic Warner Bros. normally caters to.

There even is a hint of Reiner’s 1989 comedy hit When Harry Met Sally ... in the six-year journey of a “relationship” between two neighbourhood youngsters. Those quote marks indicate the one-way nature of this troubled friendship. On the day Bryce (Australia’s Callan McAuliffe) moves into a vaguely rural suburb of an unnamed town, Juli (Madeline Carroll) flips over him. However, the second-grade boy wants nothing to do with her. So Juli, who lives across the street, stalks Bryce for six years until junior high.

This amounts to, as Bryce’s voice-over narration puts it, “half a decade of strategic avoidance and social discomfort.” Juli also gets her own voice-over narration as well as events seen from her vantage point.

But this film, written by Reiner and long time collaborator Andrew Scheinman from a novel by Wendelin Van Draanen — three male writers, in other words — is very much told from the boy’s point of view. Unfortunately, Juli is the more interesting character. Juli is tenacious and a fighter. When workers show up to cut down an ancient sycamore tree she loves, she climbs the tree and refuses to leave until firemen and the police arrive. When made aware of the forlorn state of her family’s unkempt rental property because of a snide remark by Bryce, she spends weeks transforming the front yard into a thing worthy of House Beautiful.

Bryce? Well, beside snide remarks and strategic avoidance, he shirks responsibility, plays a little basketball and is generally dull and uncool. Admittedly, the script does him no favours. If he does say something he’ll later regret, you can bet Juli will overhear him.

The youngsters’ parents are designed to be even more schematic. Bryce’s mum and dad (Rebecca De Mornay and Anthony Edwards) stand for superficial values and misleading appearances. His dad is bitter and snide — runs in the family apparently — having traded his one-time artistic bent for breadwinner duties and middle-class social virtues. All that redeems Bryce’s family is his grandfather (John Mahoney), who helps Juli tame her front yard and ill disguises his disdain for his son-in-law’s pretensions.

Juli’s family is artistic and goodhearted. Dad (Aidan Quinn) paints landscapes, and Mum (Penelope Ann Miller) works part-time jobs so the family can funnel much of their money into maintaining Dad’s mentally disabled brother (Kevin Weisman) in a private-care facility.

The film’s few boy-girl scenes — surprisingly few given that this is the core of the story — work reasonably well. Unlike their mostly fictional elders, the young people talk and behave realistically. Perhaps not as much so as the boys in Stand By Me, but you’d still like to know more about them and less about their families. Mostly, you would like to know what Juli sees in Bryce other than those “dazzling eyes.”

There’s a hint of a more dangerous kind of romantic movie here, where a girl slowly realises her dreamboat is a dry-docked dinghy. But, no, Reiner isn’t going deviate from his When Harry Met Sally ... formula. All those mixed messages eventually will get through and all should be well, at least until the next thoughtless remark by Bryce.

Reiner’s young actors acquit themselves well with honest and unabashed performances. The adults do as best as they can in thinly written roles. All goes smoothly behind the scenes, though you do wish every sequence wasn’t determined to hit you over the head with period details.

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