Measure of a Man has a familiar story with a really well-rounded cast, particularly Donald Sutherland. Director Jim Loach’s sophomore feature tackles the coming of age genre with gusto.
One of the greatest joys (and pains) in my life was the very first job I had as a newspaper delivery person. It was a summer job, but it taught me to stand on my own two feet. Especially when I was the last one of the route to receive the papers for my neighborhood subscribers. This is the same journey that Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) walks in Jim Loach’s latest film, Measure of a Man.
Set in 1976, and based on Robert Lipsyte’s novel, “One Fat Summer,” Measure of a Man is as much a coming of age story as it is a journey of discovering oneself, a hallmark of the period in which the film is set.
Loach and screenwriter David Scearce create a burgeoning, flawed family dynamic. Bobby and sister Michelle (Liana Liberato) are both at that age where they should be coming into their own. But they don’t talk to each other. Their parents, Lenore (Judy Greer) and Marty (Luke Wilson) are of separate minds when it comes to raising their kids with Marty pushing Bobby to do something and Lenore, who is taking college courses coddles him.
Cooper approaches the role of Bobby as if he was a version of himself, making the performance very interpersonal. When he decides that summer is best spent working a job, dad scoffs, but relents while mom is supportive, but concerned. A work emergency calls Marty back to New York City leaving the family to fend for themselves for the summer.
This leads Bobby to Dr. Kahn, played with his trademark dry sense of humor. As I shared with Mr. Loach and Ms. Liberato when I interviewed them for the film near the close of this year’s Phoenix Film Festival, I appreciated Mr. Sutherland’s performance because of the experience behind his eyes; he crafted a father figure for Bobby which was sorely needed. Not someone who would coddle him, but would teach him self-worth and humility. What makes his performance here so special is the way he and Cooper related to each other, something that I thought Loach and cinematographer Denson Baker captured so exquisitely.
No coming of age film is complete without a set of bullies. In this instance, Beau Knapp plays Willie Rumson, a local who feels it incumbent upon himself to pick on the vacationers who are invading their territory. Balancing out Willie is family friend Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell.) Bobby and she spend most of the movie communicating through walkie-talkies. There’s an air of romance between the two of them, but the story doesn’t explore it as it really isn’t integral to his growth in this story, but her friendship and her meaning in his life is.
While the story’s central thesis is about Bobby learning to stand on his own two feet as I had to do, and it does it so eloquently by being set in the mid 1970’s, the story does allow for other characters to have their own journeys. Scearce successfully interweaves these threads, leading to the inevitable clash between Bobby and Willie along with a demonstration of Bobby’s arc. It feels a bit cliché, but it works for the way the story is told.
In the same vein as Stand by Me and Dirty Dancing, Jim Loach has crafted a very interpersonal story full of strong characters and an even stronger will to grow up. The ensemble is as well cast as the story threads that wove them together. The interaction between Sutherland and Cooper are an absolute delight and is amongst the best I’ve seen this year.
Measure of a Man has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA.