'Ashby': Tribeca Review

A charming high school film that never tries too hard

Mickey Rourke is a hitman-cum-mentor to lonely kid Nat Wolff.

A "coming-of-age, facing-your-death movie," per writer-director Tony McNamara, Ashby pairs a teen ready to come out of his shell (Nat Wolff) with a retired CIA killer (Mickey Rourke) who has hidden his conscience under a rock. Add an ador-a-nerd (Emma Roberts) whose dad keeps an MRI in the garage, and you have the makings of a winning film about reconciling one's self-image with reality. Though already multiplex-friendly, the pic's box office hopes with teens are helped by Wolff's increased profile after the success of The Fault in Our Stars; though it isn't near the vehicle The Wrestler was for Rourke, it gives the actor enough meat to please older viewers who lament his relegation to fanboy and straight-to-VOD fare.

Rourke's title character starts the film getting bad news: Despite having given up his hazardous career years ago, he's expected to die in three months from a brain tumor. Ed (Wolff), who has just moved in next door with his single mom (Sarah Silverman), has no clue of this when he comes to interview Ashby for an interview-an-old-dude school project. He just knows Ashby can't drive anymore, and (especially after finding a cache of assassin's gear in the basement) is more than intrigued enough by the man to play chauffeur, and to begin to look up to him, in his own people-my-age-don't-really-look-up-to-blah-blah sort of way.

Despite revealing himself on his first day at a new school to be the kind of smart, insightful student jocks instinctively despise, Ed is intent on showing that he's good at football too. His speed and agility earn him a spot as wide receiver, to the puzzlement of Roberts's Eloise, who likes him but sees footballers only as fodder for her homemade research on traumatic brain injury.

While McNamara's script has Ed navigating the cognitive dissonance of existing in conflicting high school social worlds, the kid's eager questioning about Ashby's past leads the former hitman to learn that one of his victims wasn't the enemy of America he was supposed to be. Ashby's impending death amplifies the remorse he feels, and his desire for revenge on those who misused his deadly skills.

The filmmaker doesn't treat the resulting bits of action as opportunities for Grosse Pointe Blank-style physical comedy — in fact, nothing here is treated like full-bore comedy; but the film benefits from a light touch throughout. McNamara gets serious about Ed's broken home (the faraway dad who never makes good on promises to visit; the lonelyhearts mom in the midst of kissing many frogs) without giving these elements undue weight. While he essentially drops the ball on the of-the-moment issue of football and TBI, raising the subject only to let his hero "overcome" his cautiousness, he at least gets points for bringing the topic into a mainstream feature. It's hard enough to redeem a remorseless killer, without having to convince approval-seeking boys that they should reject the chance to score winning touchdowns.

Production company: Head Gear Films, Langley Park Productions, Metrol Technology

Cast: Nat Wolff, Mickey Rourke, Emma Roberts, Sarah Silverman, Adam Aalderks, Kevin Dunn

Director-Screenwriter: Tony McNamara

Producers: Phil Hunt, Josh Kesselman, Rory Koslow, Kevin McCormick, Compton Ross

Executive producer: Steven Kelliher

Director of photography: Christopher Baffa

Production designer: Brent Thomas

Costume designer: Emily Batson

Editor: Matt Friedman

Music: Alec Puro

Casting directors: Mitzi Corrigan, Angela Demo

Sales: Nick Ogiony, CAA; Yale Chasin, UTA

No rating, 102 minutes