“This was the summer I figured out who I am,” someone states toward the end of Small Time, Joel Surnow’s filmmaking debut. The sentiment isn’t implausible or completely unearned, but its on-the-nose articulation exemplifies a problem with this character-driven dramedy: When a film about relationships features sentiments expressed as neatly and simplistically as that, the storytelling feels mechanical and contrived.
That summer of discovery finds used car salesmen Al Klein (Christopher Meloni) and Ash Martini (Dean Norris) bringing Al’s son, Freddy (Devon Bostick), on board; Freddy’s parents are divorced and he’s eager to hang with his dad.
That dynamic is also explored with frustratingly obvious exposition, such as when Freddy tells Al, “I would be proud if I grew up to be like you, Dad. I could move in with you. We could make up for lost time!” Do people anywhere speak like that?
There’s certainly pathos to be mined from Freddy and Al’s attempts to connect — Freddy’s stepfather is a venture capitalist, and Al is movingly insecure that his business acumen doesn’t stack up — but as their relationship strains due to Freddy’s cutthroat approach on the lot, credulity is strained as well; we haven’t seen the evidence to buy Freddy as a shark.
The film isn’t without mirth and charm: Norris steals a number of scenes as the charismatic Ash, and the banter between Norris and Meloni is charmingly convivial. But as Surnow steers into serious waters, the direction of the storytelling becomes increasingly misguided.