There are two films opening this week that feature a relatively young male character who finds himself in an awful situation, suffering profound loss, and then having to figure out how to move on from that experience.
In “The Lucky One,” Zac Efron plays a marine who, during three combat tours, witnesses multiple deaths and injuries to those close to him, but manages to come through unscathed. At least physically – he’s certainly not emotionally and psychologically unscathed, jumping at sudden sounds and reacting adversely to being woken suddenly by his young nephews. He’s also a bit of a self-reliant loner, now that he’s away from the camaraderie of the Corps and when he decides to travel from Colorado to Louisiana to track down a woman whose photograph he found during combat, he does so on foot, accompanied by only his trusty pooch and a cinematic ability to walk vast distances with ease.
In “The Kid with a Bike” (“Le Gamin au Vélo”), the Golden Globe nominated and Cannes Grand Prize winning French film, Cyril is an 11 year old boy whose father has abandoned him at a state facility. Desperately hoping that his father still wants him, despite all signs to the contrary, Cyril repeatedly escapes the grounds to try and find him. During one of these incidents, he clings desperately to a woman in a clinic waiting room, before being shown the now empty apartment he used to share with his father upstairs in the same building. Unlike Efron’s Logan, Cyril doesn’t have a dog but he does have the titular bicycle, a young boy’s ticket to freedom, although it’s a fairly ill-fated ride.
Both Logan and Cyril encounter and interact with other emotionally damaged people – some bitter from what life has handed them and some equally desperate to make a new connection. In Logan’s case (and this is clear even from previews, so it’s no significant spoiler) his quest is driven by the mystery woman whose photograph he credits with saving his life – he originally saw it and went to pick it up, stepping out of the blast zone of an improvised explosive device in the process. Cyril’s quest for his father morphs into a desire to connect with somebody, anybody, who can provide him with the attention he’s missing. Unfortunately this includes a local neighborhood hood who has spent time in the same facility and who recognizes his innocent vulnerability.
“The Lucky One” is based on a novel by “The Notebook” author Nicholas Sparks and, as such, it’s no surprise that there’s an emotional roller coaster of a love story at its core. What might be more of a surprise, to some at least, is that Efron has the acting chops to pull it off. I’ve been anticipating this performance for a while, having seen him do solid work in multiple projects that either didn’t stretch him or didn’t quite find an audience (“Me and Orson Wells,” “Charlie St. Cloud,” “New Year’s Eve” – and in that last one he held his own against Michelle Pfeiffer). He may have come to most people’s attention in the “High School Musical” franchise, with a similarly themed and competent role in “Hairspray” along the way, but this kid can do more than burst into song on cue.
The other change in Efron for this role is that, contrary to the countless teen magazine covers, beach shots, and paparazzi pics that consistently depict him as smooth as a marble statue, he’s really a pretty hairy guy. I’ve said for years that there must be a small legion of groomers who make a living shaving, waxing, and tweezing him into his established and expected image – but perhaps no longer now that the fur is out of the bag.
While it’s Efron’s movie to carry, he’s part of a solid production and a well chosen cast and whether or not you enjoy this genre, it’s about as well done as one might hope. His is a role that might just as easily have gone to an actor like Channing Tatum, who recognizes his own limitations and would have given it his best shot, but who probably couldn’t have pulled it off quite as well. The character needs to look a certain way – not necessarily wise beyond his years but somebody who has seen enough violence for several lifetimes and who is happy to move from the frenetic pace of a war zone to as simple a job as possible without needing to explain himself to people who haven’t seen what he has seen.
Cyril is also forced to grow up too soon, but at 11 years old he’s far from being fully formed. He’s at an age where he’s impressionable, hopeful, and almost entirely lacking in the ability to make reasoned judgments based on long term consequences. He’s like a walking example of the idiocy of adult trials and sentencing statutes for pre-teen offenders. And while that’s not a topic of the film, there is an interesting scene in which a somewhat different approach to legal settlements is seen, with a remarkably pragmatic and non-sensationalized arbitration contract that most likely would have been cause for a wildly hyperbolic civil case in an American courtroom.
But every time that you want to reach into the screen and slap Cyril for his choices, you find yourself remembering that age and developmental stage – something that doesn’t excuse other characters in the story, including the father who finds fatherhood to be an inconvenience he’d rather avoid. And you’re left wondering about the backstory of the woman (played by Cécile de France) who decides to help Cyril, by being a weekend foster parent, and who puts up with his frontal lobe-deficient behavior.
This might be the biggest flaw of what is otherwise a neat film – that we’re asked to believe and simply accept that a random stranger would suddenly and profoundly alter her life based on nothing more than a passing, spontaneous request from Cyril. It’s not that it’s impossible, it’s that it seems to require a little more context – perhaps she’s had her own rough childhood or abandonment experiences – but without that context we’re left to watch Cyril’s character arc with her as little more than a prop in his story.
Both films are well made and well acted and worth checking out. Making the audience lucky too.