Every couple years there is a movie like this. An awkward teen has an awkward summer, assuming the worst, but it turns out better than expected because there are life lessons and romance along the way. The Way Way Back, The Kings of Summer, and Adventureland are recent examples, but the tradition stretches all the way back to Dirty Dancing and Lucas. This genre is so familiar, with its tropes firmly established, that even a neophyte will recognize the patterns just because the “summer coming of age story” an essential component of Western pop culture. We’ve seen stories like this in car commercials.
Measure of a Man is the latest in this tradition, and while it has an eager cast, the film is too slight for its own good. I wish it were merely forgetful. It veers from mediocrity toward calamity, aided in no small part by a handful of poorly staged, mean-spirited scenes. Director Jim Loach and screenwriter David Scearce introduce serious topics, including the Holocaust and sexual repression, only to disregard them in favor of story that hardly goes anywhere.
This time the awkward teen is Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper). He summers with his parents (Judy Greer and Luke Wilson) in a picturesque lake district. Thanks to bits of sincere voice over recalling The Wonder Years, we know Bobby hates it there. Summer activities like swimming make Bobby self-conscious about his weight, and locals tease him about how fat he is. I should pause and note that Bobby is not that overweight. He is certainly slimmer than the hero of Angus, a coming of age film about an actual fat kid, and Bobby would look downright handsome with a decent haircut. But perception is more important than reality, so bullies prey on Bobby’s biggest insecurity.
Instead of a summer camp, Bobby gets a job with Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland). Dr. Kahn has Bobby perform menial labor around his property, and speaks with exacting language, as if to assert his superiority. The bullies continue all summer, and since Bobby’s parents are busy with a rocky marriage, he has no choice but to fend for his own.
Nearly every scene is predictable, right down to the indignities and triumphs that define Bobby’s summer. Of course there is a scene with Bobby earns Dr. Kahn’s respect. Of course there is scene where Bobby’s Mom explains that she and Bobby’s father are going through a rough patch. There is nothing wrong with familiarity, except stronger films will use a skeleton to find something fresh, funny, or moving within that framework. The dialogue in Measure of a Man is stilted, and wastes every opportunity to make the characters unique. We root for Bobby because that is the default position, and not because he is worth our compassion.
Loach coasts along with this approach, filming with the hazy warm cinematography that’s common for this type of film, at least until we see the full extent of Bobby’s bullying. In the film’s most disastrous scene, the bullies take Bobby into the woods, make him strip, and humiliate him sexually. I should probably mention that Measure of a Man takes place in 1976, four years after Deliverance, and Loach/Scearce could not come up with anything better than having Bobby imitating a pig. The scene is either outright theft, or a riff on Deliverance minus the tension or context. What derails the movie is that Bobby never really contends with this humiliation, except for a dimwitted desire for revenge. No one grapples with the its implication, so the scene ultimately becomes exploitative for its own sake. This approach would be lazy in a horror film, but in dramatic comedy like this, it is tasteless.
Measure of a Man never recovers afterward. There are other sub-plots that are introduced and disregarded just as quickly, like when we see a numbered tattoo on Dr. Kahn’s forearm. There is a romantic sub-plot, involving Bobby’s platonic best friend Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell). And like so many facets to Bobby’s summer, the subplot resolves in a clumsy way. Maybe Loach intended the plot to happen subtextually, with the audience intuiting how the characters grow. But every choice and performance is unfocused, so there is little opportunity or investment for nuance.
Measure of a Man will not mean much to its audience, since it is too broad for anyone to identify with these characters or their problems. I hope this film does not deter audiences from revisiting other, better coming of age stories. And hey, I bet Adventureland is better than you remember it.