Fat Kid Rules the World: SXSW Review

K.L. Going's celebrated young-adult novel gets sensitive adaptation by actor-turned-director Matthew Lillard.

Matthew Lillard steps behind the camera to direct the film adaptation of K.L. Going's young-adult novel.

AUSTIN -- A commendably restrained loser-turns-winner tale offering an unexpected second showcase for Terri star Jacob Wysocki, Matthew Lillard's Fat Kid Rules the World is less colorful than its grandeur-deluded title suggests. That will prove a challenge at the box office, where exaggerated quirks might help a film lacking marquee-worthy actors, but viewers who find the film may be impressed by its unexpected if modest charms.

Wysocki plays Troy, whose fleshy qualifications for the title role are made quiveringly apparent in the opening shot. Although frequent glimpses of snack-sneaking underline Troy's emotional issues with food, that first scene is the closest the film gets to disrespecting a character who's sufficiently down on himself without being damned by the moviegoer's gaze.

A nonentity at school, Troy is making a matter-of-fact suicide attempt when he meets Marcus (Matt O'Leary), a pill-addicted punk rocker whose rare outburst of altruism -- he saves the teen from an oncoming bus -- quickly turns to exploitation. Demanding a reward for his heroism, Marcus proceeds to extract cash and favors by promising to make the musically inept Troy the drummer of a new band.

Troy isn't stupid, but in Wysocki's sensitive performance, loneliness bleeds easily into a half-pretended gullibility. It falls to an unlikely character to be the voice of reason: Troy's widowed father (Billy Campbell), an ex-Marine with crew-cut values. The stern man is immediately skeptical of Troy's new friend, but his motivations are more heartfelt and his parenting skills more flexible than they first seem, making him a more subtle and compelling character than this sort of story usually gets.

The same can't be said for Marcus. A stronger catalyst is needed for the changes Troy is about to undergo, and neither the script nor O'Leary can quite conjure a character whose mix of charisma and self-destructiveness is potent enough to disrupt these lives.

On the other hand, one of Fat Kid's strengths is in depicting those high school role changes that occur in baby steps, not epiphanies. In a standout scene, Troy attends his first rock show and is stranded by Marcus and his self-involved friends. His solitary, hot dog-chomping bus ride home might demoralize another character, but Wysocki's eyes are sparked by the new world he's seen -- it's a world he won't belong to anytime soon, and one that can't immediately replace the easy refuge of hours spent playing video games. But it's a reason to suspect that life gets better than high school.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Narrative Spotlight
Production Company: Whitewater Films
Cast: Jacob Wysocki, Matt O'Leary, Billy Campbell, Lili Simmons, Dylan Arnold
Director: Matthew Lillard
Screenwriters: Michael Galvin, Peter Speakman
Producers: Rick Rosenthal, Nick Morton, Matthew Lillard, Jane Charles, Jennifer Maas, Evan Wasserstrom, Talan Torriero
Director of photography: Noah Rosenthal
Production designer: Tania Kupczak
Music: Mike McCready
Costume designer: Ashley Russell
Editor: Michelle M. Witten
Sales: Ben Weiss, Paradigm
No rating, 98 minutes