- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

It’s pretty much deja vu all over again with “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” the second underwhelming debut feature to emerge from the well-meaning but booby-trapped Project Greenlight. An indie movie equivalent to “American Idol” sponsored by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and bankrolled by Miramax, the concept seems to be a steal for HBO, which gets a behind-the-scenes “reality” series on the cheap.

“Stolen Summer,” a sweet-natured memoir of boyhood friendship and loss, was the opening attraction a year ago; it failed to arouse a murmur of curiosity at the box office. A similar fate could await the far more inconsistent and derivative “Shaker Heights,” which reverts to overfamiliar coming-of-age cliches while hanging out with a callow high school boy named Kelly (Shia LaBeouf), a lower middle-class Cleveland smartypants who befriends Elden Henson’s Bart, the easy-to-like scion of a well-to-do family.

The boys meet while sharing a hobby: playing soldier in World War II battle re-enactments. The movie begins with a fake-out in uniform that plays better than you expect from the snippets exposed during the TV series.

At the outset, “Shaker Heights” reflects an attractive sense of transparency and humorous relaxation. The joke that terminates the re-enactor sequence is clever enough to suggest that screenwriter Erica Beeny has an up-to-the-minute sense of humor. Her bright lines and character introductions seem to be adding up for a while. The novice co-directors, Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, also seem more straightforward and proficient than you anticipate, given the somewhat furtive profiles they acquired during the TV chronicle.

Stale and predictable teenage gags, especially Kelly’s impertinence with a history teacher he finds dull and ignorant, begin chipping away at the initial promise. The material seems to deflate because the contrasting family stories are way out of balance. The movie neglects to amplify Kelly’s discontent with a set of sad-sack hippie parents (Kathleen Quinlan and William Sadler). Simultaneously, it blunders trying to demonstrate that Kelly could ingratiate himself with Bart’s family until letting his crush on Bart’s older sister, Tabitha (Amy Smart) get so out of hand that he disgraces himself.

Kelly seems absurdly blatant about his attraction to Tabitha, an aspiring painter who has graduated from Sarah Lawrence and Yale and is about to be married. She’s portrayed as a somewhat reluctant bride, for reasons that remain hazy, but in no way could this reluctance be interpreted as a come-on by any 16-year-old nerd with enough pride to get his feelings injured. Perhaps Tabitha needs a shoulder to droop on, but Kelly remains a ridiculous stopgap for a young woman of her age and class.

Moreover, the filmmakers are inept at lewd teases. They leave it uncertain whether Kelly has tried to steal a kiss from Tabitha or shared a downright carnal interlude. It’s also unclear what Bart possibly could have seen to make him powerfully enraged with his upstart new pal. Was there a lost scene in which Tabitha rebuked Bart for bringing Kelly into the house?

A climactic story collapse this conspicuous must have been noticeable in the screenplay. If so, it required repair before anything was committed to film. For want of such repair, a seemingly genial little movie ends up as a slight fiasco. Everything trite and borrowed about Kelly’s personality, which begins with too many resemblances to Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” and concludes with too many resemblances to Frankie Adams in “The Member of the Wedding,” is magnified by the impression that he’s playing the fool in ways that make no particular sense.

The miscalculations leave the movie groping toward a fade-out, trying to tie up loose ends on three subplots while the plot remains a shamble. Kelly is last seen hitching a piggyback ride with a girlfriend-in-waiting. The gesture calls rather too much attention to the shortcomings of “Shaker Heights” itself.

A casualty of too little dramatic integrity and then too much interfering solicitude from the Project Greenlight incubation process, the film is positioned to retire haplessly from the field of play while carrying excess baggage.

*1/2

TITLE: “The Battle of Shaker Heights”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin. Written by Erica Beeny.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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