K.L. Going’s engrossing novel Fat Kid Rules the World (Putnam, 2003) takes a modest and gritty route to the big screen. The directorial debut of actor Matthew Lillard (Scream and The Descendants) opened Friday in only a handful of theaters around the country. Granted, the story of a friendship between an obese loner, Troy, and a homeless, hustling junkie/busker was probably never destined to play in thousands of theaters on an opening weekend. But following on the heels of another smart YA adaptation, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this movie also deserves to find its audience.
Like Going’s award-winning book, the film is frank and doesn’t sugarcoat the source material. Both begin with a death wish: Troy fantasizes about killing himself by getting flattened by a city bus. But the next time we see him standing on a city street, he’s not in a dream sequence as he steps off the curb and into traffic. Before he becomes road kill, he’s tackled and thrown to the ground by a stranger, Marcus (changed from Curt in the novel), who immediately demands $20 for saving Troy’s life (all he has is $13; Marcus takes an IOU).
Marcus needs a place to crash, or at least to take a shower (he wears the same striped and torn sweater throughout), and he talks his way into the apartment where Troy lives with his widowed father and younger brother. Marcus covers his tracks by charming the pants off anyone, including Troy’s father, who’s suspicious of the reeking stranger. He knows no one can stay angry at him for too long, no matter how flaky or how obviously he lies.
In short order, Marcus bulldozes Troy into becoming the drummer of his band, though Troy knows nothing about drumming, let along punk. When Troy tries to back out, Marcus reassures him: the key to drumming is “to hit hard.” The duo make an odd pair, and not just because of their contrasting backgrounds and physical differences: Troy is a good student (except in gym and metal workshop), but the 18-year-old Marcus has long since been expelled. Troy doesn’t argue when his dad warns him to keep his eyes open around Marcus. However, he finally has a friend, though one who constantly asks for money or favors. As the wily Marcus, Matt O’Leary, steers clear from the stereotypical tics of an on-screen addled addict. He has charm to spare, not unlike Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, except he’s on speed.
The action takes place in Seattle rather than New York City, and the change of venue, with its vibrant music scene, works. The soundtrack certainly has street cred, featuring bands such as the well-known X and the more in-the-know, like Whiskey Tango and the F****** Eagles. (Fittingly for a film that transcends archetypes, there’s no plaid in sight.) Whereas Wallflower is sweet; Fat Kid Rules the World is irreverent. One beams, the other snarls.
The film also presents a moving and clear-eyed father/son relationship that at times upstages the push-and-pull Troy/Marcus bond. Troy’s dad (Billy Campbell), an ex-marine, runs his household like a drill sergeant, and though he guards his feelings, he offers smart and observant advice. In his brisk and tight-lipped manner, he reaches out to son.
With the occasional f-bomb and brief nudity, the appropriately R-rated tone might hinder the movie from reaching younger viewers in theaters, but in this day and age of digital downloads and streaming, this no-nonsense film should have no trouble finding its intended audience. It may even point viewers to see more of the work of lead actor Jacob Wysocki from the cable series Huge and the much darker and quirkier indie Terri, about another teenage outsider. And who knows? Fat Kid may spawn its own cult, like the bands Marcus obsessively follows.
Directed by Matthew Lillard
Rated R (beware of the projectile vomit)