Dirs: Efram Potelle, Kyle Rankin. US. 2003. 78mins.
Dogged - and, of course, publicised - throughout its production by documentary TV cameras, the second low-budget feature to result from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's Project Greenlight script competition is a sweet if uneven coming-of-age drama-comedy whose major asset is a winning performance by hot new teen star Shia LaBeouf. Miramax gives the film a limited opening in the US this weekend and will initially be able to count on pulling in dedicated fans of HBO's Project Greenlight cable series. After that, the presence of LaBeouf (who recently starred in Disney's teen hit Holes) should ensure that The Battle Of Shaker Heights quickly out-performs the first Project Greenlight effort, last year's box office non-event Stolen Summer, which took $134,736. In the international marketplace, where audiences may not be familiar with the TV show, independent distributors that have licensed the film from Miramax will have a much tougher task, though LaBeouf's name could still provide publicity leverage in some territories.
Project Greenlight starts with an online contest that selects a script and a director (or in this case two co-directors) from submissions by thousands of industry hopefuls. The winners get to make a $1m feature (with theatrical distribution guaranteed), the production of which is chronicled over 13 episodes by HBO. This year's winners, first-time screenwriter Erica Beeney and directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, have been portrayed in the TV series struggling with the realities of the Hollywood film-making process, giving some viewers doubts about how The Battle Of Shaker Heights would turn out.
The finished film has its rough edges, but it also has its charms, many of them stemming from Beeney's acute and funny script about bright but edgy high school senior Kelly Ernswiler (LaBeouf), a modern-day, suburban version of Catcher In The Rye's Holden Caulfield. To escape from his less than perfect home life - his dad is a recovering junkie and his mum a disappointed artist - Kelly throws himself into World War II re-enactment, holding that "you're never more alive than when you're faced with simulated death." A meeting with kindred spirit but social opposite Bart (Henson, from She's All That) leads Kelly into a major crush on Bart's older sister Kelly (Smart, from Varsity Blues) and, eventually, to some relief from his adolescent angst.
One of the debates documented in the TV series was the balance in the film between comedy and drama. It's apparent that the argument was never fully resolved because the tone wavers from scene to scene, sometimes even within scenes. The comic moments work best (even if the dialogue occasionally feels too slick to be coming out of the mouths of awkward teens), while the dramatic moments are less confidently handled and less effective.
Potelle and Rankin (who previously teamed on an independent thriller and an award-winning short) do a decent enough job with delicate material, but their directing, perhaps affected by the project's profile and the presence of the TV cameras, frequently feels tentative.
When inexperience behind the camera shows, however, the relative experience of the cast often compensates. Seventeen-year-old LaBeouf - who appeared in this summer's Charlie's Angels sequel and is currently filming I, Robot opposite Will Smith - has undeniable charisma and a confident comic touch. Enjoyable supporting performances, meanwhile, come from Smart, Henson, Quinlan (as Kelly's mum) and Appleby (from Swimfan). Experienced below the line contributors include veteran composer Richard Martin (Six Feet Under), whose quirky score accentuates the film's droll sense of humour.
Prod cos: Miramax Films, LivePlanet
US dist/int'l sales: Miramax
Int'l sales: Miramax
Exec prods: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Rick Schwartz, Joel Hatch
Prods: Chris Moore, Jeff Balis
Scr: Erica Beeney
Cinematography: Thomas E Ackerman
Prod des: Lisa K Sessions
Ed: Richard Nord
Music: Richard Marvin
Main cast: Shia LaBeouf, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, Anson Mount, Shiri Appleby, Billy Kay, Kathleen Quinlan, William Sadler