The Boys Are Back -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Few films have so poignantly portrayed a father's relationships with his sons as "The Boys Are Back," a film by Scott Hicks that reminds you he once directed the luminescent "Shine." For the first time since that magical feature debut, Hicks has invested heart and soul in a film project. Interestingly, it also is the first project he has made in Australia since "Shine."

The Clive Owen-starring film boosts such strong emotional pull that Miramax should reap good boxoffice coin domestically in adult venues. Although the film revolves around an all-male household, its good-looking dad could make this a chick flick that family guys will thoroughly enjoy. The film opens Sept. 25 in Los Angeles and New York.

The film's first half-hour is a bit weepy, which is somewhat misleading. The lively, insightful script by Alan Cubitt is based loosely on Simon Carr's 2001 memoir of his life with two sons, each by a different mother, following the death of his second wife.

So though the movie sympathetically portrays the devastation that death brings to sportswriter Joe Warr (Owen), a loss that his son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), who's barely 6, cannot process, the guts of the movie lie in a man and his boys' effort to create a working albeit unorthodox household.

Joe and Artie live in Australia, but Joe's older boy by eight years, Harry (George MacKay), lives with his mom in England. When Harry pays a visit, the three realize how much they love and need one another.

But conflicts arise. Artie, who had his dad all to himself, finds himself sharing his only parent with a brother. Harry has never understood why his father left him. Although he understands divorce and the fact that his dad had to move to his new wife's home in Australia, it still feels like abandonment to him.

There also is the matter of the father's "Just Say Yes" policy. Joe believes an all-male house should be, as he calls it, Hog Heaven. Perhaps remembering his own upbringing in England without any special fondness, he is as permissive as possible.

This leads to clutter and rumpled clothes that will make "Boys" something of a horror movie for many women. This also fuzzes the line between acceptable parent and child behavior. Which naturally leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Outside forces, all female, impact this loose nuclear unit. Joe's mother-in-law (Julia Blake), still reeling from her daughter's passing, possesses an edgy, overprotective streak. A charming divorced mother (Emma Booth) of one of Artie's classmates loves to help out, but Joe misses the signs that she is looking for a more intimate relationship.

Then there is Joe's deceased wife, Katy (Laura Fraser), with whom Joe continues to discuss their son's upbringing. He doesn't think this at all spooky. In fact, she offers good advice.

The family's dilemmas and mishaps underscore their reliance on one another even as they, as individuals, come into bitter conflict. Mistakes are made on all sides, especially the father's. He's flying solo without a co-pilot or manual.

Owen has many excellent performances to his credit, but this is his most honest, natural and beguiling. You sense love and frustration as he struggles to do the right thing, as he struggles to balance his wishes with the needs of two very different boys.

To MacKay and McAnulty belong performances of such sweet naturalness that this family movie always feels like an actual family. Life often confuses the boys, and their dad, try though he might, isn't always able to help. At least not at first.

Hicks builds the comic drama in meticulously observed, measured sequences from Cubitt's well-thought-out script. He is alert enough to the surrounding landscape to frame his story with wonderful images (courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser) of the family's rural home, nearby seaside, kids' play areas, sports arenas and in the U.K. sequences a boarding school and rugby pitch. You enjoy just looking at this film.

Never does anything feel forced or contrived. Life, as this memoir reminds, can offer plenty of drama that need not abide by fictional formulas or genre conventions.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Sept. 25 (Miramax Films)
Production: BBC Films/Tiger Aspect Pictures/Southern Light Films/Kino Films
Sales: HanWay Films
Cast: Clive Owen, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty, Julie Blake
Director: Scott Hicks
Screenwriter: Alan Cubitt
Based on the book by: Simon Carr
Producers: Greg Brenman, Tim White
Executive producers: Peter Bennett-Jones, Clive Owen, David M. Thompson, Jane Wright
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Music: Hal Lindes
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Editor: Scott Gray
Rated PG, 104 minutes