The actor Matthew Lillard is best known for his appearances in the teen-boom movies of the late ‘90s and early aughts, which included a gig as a villain in the original Scream, as well as five movies with Freddie Prinze Jr., over the course of which they failed to become a teenaged Martin and Lewis. Somewhere between She’s All That and Wing Commander, Lillard appeared in SLC Punk!, a live-wire coming of age movie about growing up punk in Reagan-era Salt Lake City, Utah.
Lillard did not direct SLC Punk!, but he has expressed pride in it, and the first feature he has directed, Fat Kid Rules the World, plays very much like a companion piece to James Merendino’s 1998 movie. Fat Kid is set in modern day Seattle instead of 1985 Salt Lake City, and does not contain the earlier film’s level of anthropological detail about the punk rock scene (not least because it occupies a relatively small bit of the landscape in 2012 Seattle). The energy and offbeat humanity, though, resemble a next-generation successor to that film.
Fat Kid starts from a very different point, though. When we meet Troy (Jacob Wysocki), he knows almost nothing about punk rock and he’s contemplating suicide. He’s an overweight high school outcast (Wysocki also played a quiet, overweight teenager in the wonderful Terri), tortured by his invisibility more than by aggressive bullying and possessed of an active fantasy life. Troy pictures himself stepping in front of a bus, blood splattering on passersby, and he’s about to go through with it for real when Marcus (Matt O’Leary) pushes him out of the way and immediately demands 20 bucks for saving his life.
Marcus has some notoriety around Troy’s high school for fronting a punk band—and also for being expelled some time ago. Now, he’s couch-surfing and scrounging up money for food and drugs, talking up his erratic, meltdown-heavy music career. Marcus attaches himself to Troy and insists they should start a new band, with Marcus on vocals and guitar, Troy on drums. Troy protests that he doesn’t know how to play the drums; Marcus offers to find him lessons and book them a gig in a few weeks. This brainstorm happens in a fit of either friendliness or opportunism; the movie is admirably unclear about which, and savvy about the fact that Troy, friendless but no fool, isn’t sure either.
This holds true for almost all of the characters in Fat Kid Rules the World. The kids and adults alike are smart and complex, but neither is quite equipped to handle the teenage unpredictability. We first see Troy chafing as his stern ex-Marine father Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell), who’s ordering him to play basketball and run laps. But rather than falling into the simple rhythm of strict parenting, sudden rebelling, and eventual understanding, the movie makes Mr. Billings into a real person, not a military-dad stereotype. He’s suspicious of Marcus, but also sees that his son needs desperately to make a friend and enter a world outside of computer games and junk food. The tension between his fair-minded firmness and legitimate encouragement helps to develop the movie’s original, sweetly comic tone.
Lillard respects that warmth, drawing out terrific performances from his cast. Wysock could have found himself at a disadvantage, playing this part so soon after a potentially similar role in Terri, but he renders Troy’s conflicting emotions vividly and distinctly. In one terrific scene, he asks for permission to attend a late-night punk concert, acquiesces to his father’s immediate objections, and breaks down into self-loathing, causing Mr. Billings to change course.
Fat Kid Rules the World is filled with scenes like this, scenes that zigzag through expectations, making stock characters and situations feel fresh. It’s not a plotty movie, yet it avoids the rushed school-year timeline of so many coming-of-age stories. Lillard has a sure hand with a camera, communicating background details—Troy’s stress-eating habits, Marcus’ transience, losses in the Billings family’s past, Troy’s growing passion for bashing a drum kit—with succinct visuals. Even an abrupt ending feels right; the movie doesn’t stick around to insist that everything will be great from here on out.
In that sense, Fat Kid Rules the World feels like a prequel to SLC Punk!, and a similarly notable achievement for Lillard, who so often played creeps and jerks earlier in his career and now shows touching kinship with struggling outsiders. Late in SLC Punk!, there’s a flashback to that movie’s characters as kids, showing the transition from Rush and Dungeons & Dragons to punk rock. Fat Kid is necessarily less steeped in punk as a way of life—much of its music was written for the film, a nice DIY touch—and focuses more on a handful of relationships than the dynamics of a subculture. But the exhilaration it generates feels a bit like that flashback blown up to feature-length detail.