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The Wheeler Boys -- Film Review

"The Wheeler Boys" is an intense and in many ways impressive filmmaking debut for Philip G. Flores, a bow that comes with even more pressure than is usual for a first-time filmmaker.

For Flores is something of a publicly anointed young filmmaker to watch, having won the demanding FIND Your Voice competition inaugurated by Netflix and Film Independent. As its first winner, Flores received a package that included a $150,000 production grant, donated film stock, free cameras and film processing plus a guaranteed distribution on Netflix and a premiere at FIND's recently concluded Los Angeles Film Festival. The film also was invited to participate in FIND's Screenwriting and Producer's Labs.

So there's good new and bad news here. The good news is that with all this help, hand-holding and money, Flores made a solidly crafted calling card that nicely showcases his talents as a writer and director. The bad news is that he made a solidly crafted calling card instead of doing what the competition claims it's looking for -- offering a new voice. There is no new voice or vision here.

As any veteran of Sundance, LAFF or any other festival that highlights American indie works will tell you in a very weary voice, the coming-of-age high school drama with abusive parents, cliques of teenage jerks and parties with binge drinking has been done to death. It's hard to imagine anything new to say unless one throws in vampires and werewolves as "The Twilight Saga" has done.

Flores has nothing new to say. What he does offer are tightly directed, well-acted scenes by a smart young cast and a terrific sense of small-town life.

The film revolves around two brothers: high school freshman Ted (Lorenzo James Henrie) and his older brother, Truck ("Elephant's" Alex Frost), a senior and football star. Truck is a swaggering big man on campus and the leader of the self-proclaimed "Kings," a clique of buddies whose only apparent course of study is party science and female anatomy.

Predictably, the incoming freshman picks up bad values and social habits from his brother. His only other male authority figure is an abusive, alcoholic, wheelchair-bound dad (Billy Campbell), whose condition never is explained. These bad values eventually impact Ted's relationship with a girl he's sweet on, Kallea (Haley Ramm), as well as Truck and his own pregnant fiancee (Portia Doubleday).

The screenplay by Flores and Max Doty, based on Doty's short story, thankfully is not looking for heroes and villains. The point is more one of maturity. Although younger, Ted is simply more mature and smarter than his brother. Because Truck mostly has raised him after his father checked out -- and who knows where the mother went or why -- Ted looks up to Truck, so for a while at least he is oblivious to his brother's serious moral shortcomings.

Kids find danger attractive, which is why Ted is not alone among the freshmen in wanting to crash parties with the Kings or why girls want to flirt with guys who clearly mean them no good. The film's portrait of high school as virtually the only option for fun in a small town is acutely observed and not without its satisfactions.

Henrie and Ramm stand out as the two freshmen who must experience a sharp learning curve their first year, and that's not in the classroom. Henrie often needs little if any dialogue to convey a welter of emotions he is going through when the full realization of his brother's many betrayals becomes increasingly clear to his character. Ramm also conveys much with looks or gestures. These two might be the real discoveries in the film.

Frost and Doubleday also are fine as nearly adult students who can't see beyond limited education and job expectations. The film manifests a small-town atmosphere despite the fact it was shot in and around the Los Angeles area.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Netflix)
Production: Netflix and Film Independent present an Aqueous Reflection Films production
Cast: Alex Frost, Lorenzo James Henrie, Portia Doubleday, Haley Ramm, Alex Russell, Billy Campbell
Director: Philip G. Flores
Screenwriters: Philip G. Flores, Max Doty
Based on a short story by: Max Doty
Producer: Chase B. Kenney
Executive producers: Pepito L. Flores, Antonio Kaw, Tony Carlucci
Director of photography: Bradley Stonesifer
Production designer: Mona Nahm
Music: Peter Golub
Costume designer: Samantha Kuester
Editor: Amy Duddleston
No rating, 91 minutes