The Battle of Shaker Heights

The Battle of Shaker Heights

directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle

starring Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Shiri Appleby

Miramax

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.

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