Frankly, I didn’t know Matthew Lillard had it in him. But FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, based on the novel by K. L. Going, is a sweet, heartfelt punk rock coming of age story that floored me. Funny and emotional, FAT KID RULES THE WORLD will play to a mainstream audience as well as punk kids of all ages. I was surprised by how touching the movie gets at times – I heard a lot of sniffling in the theater during the more emotional scenes, some of it coming from myself – and the end result is a winning movie that, if all is right with the world, will find decent distribution. I could see this one becoming a teenage classic. I think John Hughes would have approved.
Troy (Jacob Wysocki) is that kid in school that just doesn’t exist in the social sphere, although you wouldn’t know it to look at him – he’s 300 pounds of teenager in a world that would never give him the time of day. When not playing online games and eating, he spends most of the time imagining ways in which he happily dies, often with explosive gore. Troy’s mother is dead; his taciturn military father (Billy Campbell) doesn’t quite know what to do with him, and his younger brother is embarrassed by him. One day, Troy decides to act on his suicidal fantasy and steps in front of an oncoming bus.
But before the bus can slam into him, he’s hurled out of the way by the unlikeliest hero imaginable – Marcus (Matt O’ Leary), a local burnout and recently expelled from the high school Troy attends. Marcus and Troy form a bond of sorts – Marcus isn’t above using Troy for his own personal needs, but he develops a genuine affection for him, and decides that Troy would be perfect for his new band. Slowly, Troy comes out of his shell, but Marcus’s addictions threaten to cripple them both.
The performances in FAT KID RULES THE WORLD are across the board terrific. As Troy opens up to his family and to Marcus, Jacob Wysocki is admirably restrained and his work feels genuine. We root for Troy as he explores this new punk rock world and wish him the best. The same goes for Matt O’Leary, who manipulates everything and everyone around him, but winds up feeling protective of Troy and their unlikely friendship is honest and true. But the performance of the movie belongs to Billy Campbell, who is fantastic as the stern father, a strict disciplinarian that could have gone completely cliché but instead takes a different approach that completely works. He sees his son finally interacting with the world and loves him with all his heart, even if he can’t show it. His work is phenomenal here, and is one of my favorite performances of the year so far.
Matthew Lillard has a deft touch with the humor as well as the emotion – I’ve rarely seen a first film directed so confidently. Lillard was first introduced to the material when he did an audio recording of the book nine years ago, and once he read it, he had to have it. It was a nine year struggle to make the movie he wanted to make, with no compromises. This is the Lillard of SLC PUNK working here. It feels like Lillard has lived this world and knows the people in it very intimately. The film is often hilarious, especially when Troy imagines various scenarios that often end with him dying in spectacular fashion. The music, by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, works tonally with the film and Lillard uses the punk rock soundtrack very well, especially in one scene when Troy and Marcus make music together, and it becomes a revelation for both of them.
There’s no reason FAT KID RULES THE WORLD shouldn’t get distribution –it plays very well to a crowd and I could see kids embracing the movie’s message and performances. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD has really stuck with me, and Lillard, with his feature film directing debut, navigates the uncomfortable waters of adolescence with sensitivity and humor. One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at SXSW this year, and I hope everyone gets to see this very soon.