Film Review: Measure of a Man

Coming-of-age dramedy isn’t that original, but still manages to be a sweet summer tale.
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It’s not revealing too much to report that the warmhearted coming-of-age drama Measure of a Man, set in the summer of ’76, opens and closes with narration about the summertime. In fact, if the climactic line “I think I knew then that would be our last summer at the lake” isn’t one that viewers have heard before, it probably will at least ring familiar. The film, based on Robert Lipsyte’s 1977 novel One Fat Summer, seems to have been assembled according to a summer-movie checklist by director Jim Loach (son of Ken) and screenwriter David Scearce (A Single Man).

And yet, this checklist—awkward-teenage-boy edition—measures up to be a sweetly endearing story, despite a dearth of surprises. The details and emotions have been rendered with care in telling the tale of 17-year old Bobby Marks, a self-consciously chubby kid, played with wit and sensitivity by Blake Cooper (The Maze Runner’s memorable Chuck).

Cooper’s command of the screen suggests that more often a kid of Bobby’s proportions should be the lead, and not the sidekick, in teen movies that aren’t necessarily about size. Although, for a film that does tackle the subject of bodyweight head-on, Measure of a Man manages to be sharp and insightful in portraying Bobby’s struggle towards accepting, even embracing, his whole self.

He starts out as an anxious joker, who tries to hide his girth in oversized shirts, or by actively avoiding body-shaming bullies like Willie Rumson (Beau Knapp) and his toadies. Amid the cheery backdrop of summertime sun, classic ’70s hits and backyard barbecues, Bobby suffers, ashamed to doff his top at the Rumson Lake beach club where he and his family have spent every summer for as long as he can remember.

With his parents Lenore (Judy Greer) and Marty (Luke Wilson) squabbling more and more, and his older sister Michelle (Liana Liberato) consumed by her flirtation with the beach club stud Pete Marino (Luke Benward), Bobby’s only real lifeline is his childhood pal in the house across the lake, one Joanie Williams (Danielle Rose Russell).

But then Joanie’s family heads back to the city for some mysterious reason, and it seems the summer might be ruined for lonely Bobby, until he takes a job at the palatial lakeside home of persnickety Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland). Hiring Bobby, whom he insists on calling “Robert,” to take care of his expansive lawn and swimming pool, the doctor is a stern taskmaster, full of admonishment and aphorisms, though not much warmth. Of course, as lonesome cranks in these movies often do, the doctor has Robert’s best interests at heart, and gradually, his constant tests of Bobby’s character help the boy gain the confidence to stand up for the things he wants.

Sutherland imbues the good doctor with a disarming chill that could only be the result of some deep, enduring pain. To the film’s credit, it merely hints at what might have been the cause, allowing Sutherland’s performance to carry most of the weight and meaning behind Kahn’s interest in seeing this kid better himself. Dispensing Kahn’s gruffness in just the right dosage, Sutherland paints a nuanced portrait with a minimum of screen time, as he and Cooper develop a heartfelt rapport.

On occasion, the cloying score works too hard telling a story that’s conveyed well enough by Cooper and Sutherland’s performances. A few of the supporting contributions, on the other hand, go overboard driving home their points, from Wilson’s always-disparaging dad to Knapp’s cigarette-puffing hothead. The script and Knapp hammer so hard on Willie’s bullying behavior that when the character finally reveals added dimension, it comes off as contrived and not too convincing.

Fortunately, Willie Rumson’s fate is but a background concern in an otherwise sweet tale that pulls off its foreground drama of a boy becoming a man, by dint of building his character and confidence. The sepia-toned shots of ’70s teens hanging out for the summer capture a feeling that’s meant to seem familiar, and it does, all going down easy like a tall glass of mint iced tea on a hot August afternoon.

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