Shadows of Kurt Cobain and Other Rockers Play Across the Kid in ‘Fat Kid Rules the World’

Fat Kid Troy Billings doesn’t fit in at school or at home. He hates his life so much that he tries to kill himself by stepping in front of a bus. Troy is saved at the last second by another misfit teenager, punk rocker Marcus. So begins Fat Kid Rules the World, actor Matthew Lillard’s directorial debut. This poignant coming of age tale, based on the YA book of the same name by Kelly L. Going, traces the developing friendship between Troy and Marcus. As the two attempt to form their own punk band, they navigate questions we’ve all asked about where we fit into the world and how we can shape an identity for ourselves.

Lillard does an excellent job of ensuring that the focus of Fat Kid Rules the World remains on the story of Troy and Marcus while drawing in other storylines to create characters that are endearing and complex. Young actors Jacob Wysocki (Troy) and Matt O’Leary (Marcus) are a believable duo throughout the movie. Marcus’s efforts to turn Troy into a bona fide punk rock drummer are simultaneously hilarious and gut wrenching. As an audience, we feel for Troy when he struggles to play his first show. Troy is a compelling protagonist; someone worth rooting for precisely because his heartache is so genuine.

For the viewer, liking Marcus is rather complicated. He lacks the immediate dopiness that makes Troy lovable—and forgivable. Lillard and O’Leary have done viewers a favor by making the prescription pill addict and high school dropout equal parts charming and repelling. Instead of disliking him because he makes poor decisions, the audience can feel pity for this wayward son who truly has no place in his home or his school. Shadows of Kurt Cobain and other Seattle rockers play across the character of Marcus, making him seem both ghostly and entirely real.

Billy Campbell, who plays Troy’s strict but compassionate father, deserves special recognition for his close and careful interpretation of a grieving man who fights to guide his children. Like the other characters in the movie, he’s not always likable but he’s always compelling. And when he acts selflessly and compassionately, there’s simply nothing about it that reads as disingenuous. The role is a great turn for Campbell, who has also won acclaim for his role as troubled councilman Darren Richmond on the AMC drama The Killing.

Original music for the film was written by Mike McCready of legendary Seattle band Pearl Jam, with performances by the in-movie punk bands provided by the actors themselves and band Whiskey Tango. Asking a real grunge heavyweight to pen the songs for the movie was a smart move on Lillard’s part. Instead of sounding like songs any high school garage band could produce, the tracks Marcus’s screams and picks his way through during the movie genuinely sound like the work of a young musical genius.

It took Matthew Lillard nearly a decade to make his dream of turning Fat Kid Rules the World into a movie come true. His diligence and his love for the story are evident in the final product, which is just complex enough to seem plausible. In the end, Fat Kid Rules the World works as a narrative because it doesn’t make those unrealistic jumps that viewers must tolerate when watching many coming-of-age movies. Everything isn’t okay at the end of Fat Kid, and that’s okay.

The Fat Kid Rules the World DVD includes five featurettes, along with the original theatrical trailer, for viewers who want to delve deeper into the world of Troy and Marcus. Two of the featurettes revolve around music in the film and highlight the street music scene in Seattle. A standard behind-the-scenes type feature highlights Lillard’s motivation for making the movie and allows actors and crew members to talk about their experience with the film.

An ‘outtake’ with Lillard playing a misguided guidance counselor is a big bonus for fans of the actor, who is known for his excellent comedic timing. However, the best feature on the DVD is also the shortest: A live performance from Seattle street musician Glen ‘Pops’ Freeman gives viewers a taste of street music in the Pacific Northwest and is a real treat for fans of stripped-down soul classics.

Fat Kid Rules the World is every bit as impressive on DVD as it is in theatres. Viewers will no doubt find themselves returning to the movie to soak in the excellent performances by Campbell, O’Leary and Wysocki. Fat Kid Rules the World is a coming-of-age story that isn’t likely to lose its power anytime soon.

RATING 8 / 10