Few films have tried to deal with child bereavement and the nature of fatherhood, which is why The Boys Are Back (2010) is so refreshing. It thrusts the issue right out in front of the audience and may cause every father watching to re-think his own parental approach.
Based on the memoirs of The Independent political columnist Simon Carr, The Boys Are Back tells the story of Joe (Clive Owen), who has recently lost his wife to cancer and is left to raise his six year-old son by himself. Soon after, his elder son from another marriage travels to Austraila to live with him. During this time Joe employs a new parenting style called ‘Free-Range’. This basically means he allows his children to do what they please.
Obviously from the synopsis this film could have easily slipped into overly sentimental territory surrounded by clichés that you could tick off a list. But the film skilfully sidesteps such obstacles with relative ease. Why? Well mostly because of the source material.
The memoirs by Simon Carr are heartbreaking and at the same time very funny. Credit to screenwriter Allan Cubitt for not watering down the story into family ‘PG’ territory, which would have been condescending to the audience and not retained the integrity of the book.
This film will ultimately divide parents. It may have the mothers rubbing their eyes in disbelief as dads are thinking, “Now that’s parenting”. Joe lets his children dive into a Jacuzzi which is only one foot deep, and he drives along the beach with one of his kids on the hood of the car. It is surprising that child services didn’t take notice. The film explores the parental nature of fathers; albeit with a lightly misogynistic view on parenthood, but is undertaken with a deft comic touch so it never becomes mean-spirited towards the female audience.
The performances are note-perfect; Clive Owen, taking a break from his carrot munching, gun totting and globe trotting action adventures, delivers a performance of honest beauty without giving up his macho charisma in the process. George Mackay is also notable as Harry, Joe’s son from another marriage, still feeling that he is responsible for his parents’ divorce, yet acting like a normal teenager in the process.
Then there is little Nicholas Mcanulty, who is extraordinary. He should be in the same line of praise as Max Records from Where The Wild Things Are (2009). Only six years-old and it is good that this shows; he makes the most incomprehensible comments but they can mean so much. Trying to cope with the death of his mother, he can be horrible, sweet and anarchic. He has a simple understanding of what is going on, although there are some moments where you think ‘Does he actually miss his mother?’ He apparently gets more upset about not having the crusts cuts off his bread than his mother’s death. However then he is lying on the floor waiting to die so that he can be with her. It is a complex performance and he pulls it off with aplomb.
This film does have its problems. The death of the mother is quick and horrible, you do not get know her enough nor the extent of her relationship with Joe to really understand her. Due to this the first twenty minutes of the film are hard to watch and there is some unnecessary nastiness. Plus whenever there is an emotional scene, a few notes of acoustic guitar can be heard to gain emotional reaction from the audience. This can get a bit grating after a while.
The most cynical of viewers may see this as one long promo for the Southern Australian tourist board with beautiful shots by cinematographer Greig Frasher, of the golden grass and the wildlife in Australia. This is also reflected in Emily Seresin’s costume design. When the group are in Australia there are plenty of shorts, t-shirts and sandals – don’t forget about the beautiful weather. Then back in England, we are in rain and misery with raincoats, waterproofs and scarves.
Showing that single fathers can become good parents, this is a wonderfully witty and emotive film. Occasionally veering towards sentimentality, but pulled back by the rugged charm of Owen and outstanding performances from the boys.
© 2010 – 2012, Ben McCarthy.