November 5, 2009

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The Boys Are Back (PG-13)
Widowed dad Clive Owen tries to figure out how to raise his young son and a teenage son he barely knows without his wife in The Boys Are Back, a lovely little drama.

The movie is also a lovely piece of tourism-inducement for Australia. From the grass-covered rolling hills to the cliffs above the sea to the shoots of a vineyard, the movie makes the place seem like a dry-heat paradise.

And heaven knows Joe (Owen) could use some pretty scenery now and then. After his wife Katy (Laura Fraser) dies suddenly, he realizes that he doesn’t really know his young son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) at all. A sports writer, Joe spent much of his time on the road and Katy took care of cutting the crusts off bread and reading to Artie before story time. Now motherless, Artie swings from being a wild adventurous boy to being almost cripplingly sad — and Joe doesn’t know how to reach him.

But he wants to try. Joe also has a son back in England — a teenager named Harry (George McKay) — whom he left nearly 10 years earlier when he followed Katy (who was pregnant) to Australia. Harry stayed with his mom back in England, but shortly after Katy dies, he asks to come for an extended visit. Now Joe, who has been used to being the guy bringing presents for Artie and the voice on the phone for Harry, is trying to put together something like a functioning family.

The Boys Are Back does a remarkable job getting to the difficulty of parenting. Joe stares at Artie and realizes that there are things going on in his head that he can’t get to, that he can’t make better with reason or explanations because Artie doesn’t even have the words to explain what he’s feeling. And while Harry’s closer to being an adult, his teenage mind is still a bit of a mystery to Joe. Joe spends most of the movie feeling frustrated — on top of the loneliness of missing his wife, the practical difficulties of juggling a demanding job and caring for his kids, and the pressure of dealing with Katy’s grieving mother, who makes snide remarks when Joe starts to befriend a new woman. Rarely can a movie wow you with its portrayal of relationships, but The Boys Are Back really does delight you with how nuanced all of Joe’s interactions are.

Good writing can only get you so far with this kind of story; good acting is also required to make these scenes really work, and The Boys Are Back has solid performances throughout. The movie is all clean lines and smarts choices that really make it a joy to watch. B+

Rated PG-13 for some sexual language and thematic elements. Directed by Scott Hicks and written by Allan Cubitt (from a book by Simon Carr), The Boys Are Back is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by Miramax Films.