The Battle of Shaker Heights
directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle
starring Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Shiri Appleby
The Battle of Shaker Heights is not a good film “for a low-budget movie,” it’s not a good film “for a film-school type of movie.” The Battle of Shaker Heights is a good film, period — pairing a gifted, unknown screenwriter with excellent performances by “name” actors. Such a pairing is one of the premises of HBO’s Project Greenlight series, the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck reality show where a winning script is chosen and the film project is put together on the small screen. There’s almost no budget, the actors are followed around off-set by pesky cameras, and the filming schedule is purposely abbreviated. This summer’s project-film stars Shia LeBeouf (Dumb and Dumberer, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) as Kelly Emswiler, a high school senior obsessed with war memorabilia. Emswiler is a angry young man with a mouth that just can’t quit, a kid who escapes to WWII re-enactments (to which he drives to in his own Willys Jeep) every weekend.
Unfortunately, there’s plenty for Kelly to be angry about, and to escape from. Living in a home with a permanent “for sale” sign in the lawn, he spends as little time as possible around his mother (Kathleen Quinlan). Mom is a former artist who now supervises her own in-house Chinese sweatshop that reproduces her creations for the Red Lion art sale crowd. He spends even less time with dad (William Sadler), a former junkie who once blew his son’s college fund on black-tar smack, and who now spends his unemployed days volunteering at the local recovery center. The kid is the only one of the trio with a real job, working nights in a nearly-deserted grocery store alongside Sarah (Shiri Appleby, Roswell), who secretly pines for her smart-aleck co-worker. While Kelly is a hard-core commando on the simulated battlefield, his bravado and fighting skills falter when it comes to a bully, Lance (Billy Kay). When the would-be soldier meets a rich-kid fellow re-enactor, Bart — who displays guts and character away from mock warfare — a fast friendship is made. While the two plan Kelly’s revenge upon Lance, romance-novice Kelly becomes entranced with Bart’s much older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart, Rat Race, Roadtrip). Bart (Elden Henson, The Mighty Ducks, Dumb and Dumberer), a nice guy who has taken Kelly under his wing, becomes increasingly uneasy with his friend’s awkward loitering about his sophisticated sister, who is about to be married.
Indeed, the coming-of age, eccentric-kid with a screwed-up family plot behind The Battle of Shaker Heights is hardly innovative, but every cliché works, nonetheless. Out-of-nowhere creator/screenwriter Erica Beeney’s dialogue manages to be snappy as well as poignant; Kelly’s one-liner assaults and bomb-dropping comebacks are absolutely brilliant, and the device of WWII re-enactment is inspiration on the Rushmore level. All of the performances are good; LeBeouf’s is exceptional. Kyle Rankin’s and Efram Potelle’s imaginative direction of their first feature is a good match with Beeney’s vision. The Battle of Shaker Heights has a major problem, however. At approximately one and quarter hour in length, it’s just not worth a full-price theater ticket. Another scene should have been added to each aspect of the story, particularly Kelly’s relationships with Bart, Sarah, and his parents; another battlefield exploit like the convincing opening act would also have been a plus. It’s almost too bad that this was a budget-and-time restricted Project Greenlight film, for if Shaker Heights contained another well-crafted twenty minutes, it might have been a minor classic along the lines of Breaking Away and My Bodyguard. However, this mini-movie has been resigned to play like an exceptional “afterschool special.” But one shouldn’t blame Project Greenlight. After all, it’s a showcase for unknown, up-and-coming directors and writers who hopefully will go on to bigger things. Certainly, if Erica Beeney develops another script, the major studios will undoubtedly be reading it.