Running time: 90 min. Rating: Rated PG for language and some thematic material.
Directed by: Rob Reiner Written by: Rob Reiner & Andrew Scheinman. Adapted from the book by Wendelin Van Draanen
Starring: Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Aidan Quinn, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller, Anthony Anderson, Rebecca DeMornay, Kevin Weisman
Rob Reiner’s Flipped is a small wonder of delightful innocence, and a welcome addition to its director’s sagging filmography. It’s been a long time since Reiner’s playful charm was this prominent, evoking the jovial insight that made work as varied as The Princess Bride, This Is Spinal Tap!, and Stand By Me so special. Based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, Flipped finds itself sharing the same setting as that aforementioned Stephen King adaptation—suburbia in the early 1960’s—and despite the space of some twenty-four years between them, the two films could be spiritual siblings.
Instead of focusing on the restless curiosity and aching hunger of boyhood like Stand, Flipped gives equal play to both of its adolescent narrators, and it’s more interested in internal growth and the elusive search for ‘character’ and ‘passion’ than it is in exploring the hurtful loss of young innocence. Together, they are charming, eloquent bookends that show that Reiner is as canny and as big-hearted a film artist as he’s ever been. As he did with Stand, Reiner replicates the time-period with a clear, bold visual hand and an ear for the musical heartbeat of a vanished era.
Draanen’s story is simple and emotionally obvious, so much so that it taunts any potential adapters with sappy snares and easily-botched character types. Bryce Loski (Callan McAulliffe) meets Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) whilst they are both in elementary school, when his family moves in across the street from hers. From these opening moments to the close, we get a mostly constant narration from both Bryce and Juli, and we see events replayed from both perspectives, the narrative flipping not just between different time periods and points of views, but between different moods and perceptions. There is a good bit of melodrama in between, but what we are looking at is the stuff that young crushes are made of, and it’s just as sincere and sometimes sloppy as the romantic overtures of a real fourteen-year old. Reiner pulls much of the dialogue directly from the book and builds it into the story, surrounding it with a heartening amount of picturesque verve and wry wit that disarms our expectations and allows us to take the broad gestures of feeling at face value.
Face value is something the film explores extensively, to strong dramatic effect. Juli emotionally imprints on Bryce from their first meeting, in a way that very young girls are wont to do, and then she spends the next furtive years building a temple in her mind that ‘those eyes’ and ‘that smile’ can live and grow in. All the while, Bryce is avoiding her advances, not so much because she’s ‘a girl’ but because he’s caught in the orbit of his friends and family’s expectations concerning The Bakers; his dad (Anthony Anderson) is sure they are a shiftless lot with a lay-about artist father and a sad, regretful wife. How else, then, to explain the sordid state of their yard, which looks like it was landscaped by the Klopeks?
What Reiner and his co-scripter do with the structure is play these often incorrect assumptions against themselves. We aren’t surprised, of course, to find –courtesy of grandpa Loski (a sage and sap-proof John Mahoney) — that the Bakers are not at all the sum of their house or yard, and that pop Baker (Aidan Quinn) has a very good reason for putting his money into things other than marigolds. As Juli starts to grow in Bryce’s esteem because of her internal character, he dissipates in hers; not because he lacks that same character, but because he’s too confused to steer the ship of his feeling with any kind of sure hand. He turns instead to the cultural directive around him, and finds it wanting. This isn’t done with a strong sarcasm or some kind of arthouse disdain, but with a gentle, drifting structure and strong acting, placed against a backdrop that doesn’t demean the world of Flipped, but recollects it in the warm, dreamy reflection of a lover. There isn’t a mean bone in this film’s body, but neither is it naïve about the way we as people can place false meaning, misplaced importance, or bitter resentment in actions we don’t fully understand.
But if it all came down to the deconstruction of outside values and expectations, another rip at American suburbia as a lie that eats individuality, Flipped would be dead-on-arrival, drained of any of the honesty it possesses. Instead, it shows us that being able to redeem disillusionment and refine our love for others is as important to growth as coming to terms with our own disappointments and regrets. They may be small for these young kids—I should have placed that bid, I should have stayed with her at that tree–but they exist, and Flipped follows Juli and Bryce as they try to make good out of confusion.
None of this would work with the wrong actors in the two driving roles, and Reiner hits it out of the park both in terms of the casting and in the sizzling vitality and earnest he pulls out of McAulliffe and Carroll. Bryce has to be a self-conscious dreamboat in Juli’s eyes, but McAuliffe’s strength is playing the part as if he’s never aware of that mantle, and he comes off as plausibly as a boy of that era as Wheaton and the rest did in Stand By Me. Even when his character’s actions are selfish or cowardly, he’s channeling confusion and uncertainty that makes us patient with his growing-up. By contrast, Carroll comes off as both vivacious, overly emotive, and yet wizened—when she sits all day in her favorite tree to prevent it’s demolition, she never seems naïve, but simply resolved. She knows the outcome but her demonstration is to show she wishes it were different. Much of her interaction and dealing with Bryce reflect the same sensibility. The adults are all worthy at bolstering their headlining progeny, and Mahoney in particular is good at taking Hallmark prognostications and making them sound so real and profound, that they help shape the emotional identity of the film.
Flipped is a film that is without major event or spectacle, that doesn’t turn on deep, heavy themes or propose world-shaking political suppositions. Instead, it’s a striking gem of human interaction, and beneath it’s broad trajectory, beats the conviction of its director. Rob, go out there and make another movie as good as this one.