Given the inherently debased modus operandi of the film industry in this country—has there ever been a system of aesthetic production so venal, so pandering, so embracing of idiot dreams?—the HBO operation known as Project Greenlight is almost an act of patronage. Almost: For every watt of rookie-break largesse accumulated by the films themselves, there’s a corresponding countercharge of HBO voyeurism. Which reigns? Certainly, watching the exploitative reality-TV diary of a first-timer’s filmmaking siege can easily destroy the possibility of enjoying the movie itself. For Stolen Summer, the process trumped product, lending the Damon/Affleck mission the neutered air of a snake oil sell. Was the film’s failure rooted in the contest, or would it have stunk anyway?
This year, The Battle of Shaker Heights more than justifies the bizarre birdcage circumstances in which it was chosen, developed, and executed, and I’m glad, odd as it feels, that it got made. As documented in the series, the partnered directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, adapting Erica Beeney’s sharp-tongued script, quickly revealed themselves to be miniature megalomaniacs, and the resulting tension and misery could’ve led you to bet your house that Shaker Heights would end up sucking hind tit. But we shouldn’t care about the how, and, finally, we don’t. I caught only minutes of Project Greenlight, so for me Rankin and Potelle’s movie bounced and hummed and joshed with an observant and genuine voice. Reminiscent of Bottle Rocket‘s sotto voce behavioral business and affectionate minor-key absurdity, Heights comes off as if it were born of a single, singularly witty brainpan.
First and foremost, there’s the unforgettable creation of Kelly Ernswiler, a dweeby high school senior with an unfashionable mop of curls, an odd lust for war games, and a barb-spitting mouth he can never manage to keep shut. (As an answer to the principal’s grumble, “How am I going to get through to you?” Kelly helpfully offers, “Well, advertising executives often use sexuality to appeal to my demographic.”) Credit should go to Beeney and wiseacre star Shia LaBeouf and Rankin-Potelle; Kelly is living in four tangible dimensions, irritated by the nowhere-ness of adolescence, resentful of his distracted parents (Kathleen Quinlan and William Sadler as aging post-hippies with closets of problems), and approaching the world as if it were a combat zone where the only weapon that works is what’s between his ears. He even corrects his history teacher about Civil War injustices, à la Good Will guru Howard Zinn.
The unlikeliest teen star ever, and therefore phenomenally convincing, LaBeouf handles Beeney’s snap-crackle-pop dialogue with brilliant ease; Elden Henson and Shiri Appleby, as buddy-foils as perplexed by Kelly’s cynicism as they are beguiled by his sensibility, are just as comfortable in their own britches. When it’s settled on the hero’s sardonic life-view, Shaker Heights can be an entrancement, but unfortunately Beeney’s script strains for story, folding in a smug bully (and a dreary revenge scenario), Kelly’s aimless crush on a hot Yale grad student (Amy Smart), and a late-arriving parental crisis that begets lots of brooding. The movie is neither a pure character study nor a plot-driven bildungsfilm, but an awkward hybrid, albeit one warm with textured relationships. The characters talk like smart, unpredictable people, and Kelly Ernswiler is one of a kind.
“The Shootists: Indie Film Producer Christine Vachon Analyzes ‘Project Greenlight'” by Joy Press