Joe Warr is the sort of dad who could give a mom a heart attack. He lets his kid ride on the hood of his truck as he speeds along the beach. He’s OK with bicycles in the kitchen and pillow fights in the bedroom. And his house always resembles a disastrous post-party landscape, bottles and containers and pizza boxes and what have you strewn from one end to the other.
Joe (Clive Owen), a British sportswriter living and working in Australia, would be the first to tell you, however, that the place didn’t look quite so rough when his wife was alive. Based on a memoir by Simon Carr and directed by Oscar winner Scott Hicks (Shine), The Boys Are Back is not just a tearjerker about a widower trying to care for two sons after his second wife’s premature death from cancer (although it has plenty of poignant moments). Like the book, the film also examines the differences between mothers and fathers as caregivers and is bold enough to suggest that maybe traditional parenting isn’t the only way to raise kids.
For Joe, grieving and left alone to care for young Artie (Nicholas McAnulty), rarely saying “No” proves to be the right decision, even after his older son from his first marriage (George MacKay, the youngest Bielski brother in Defiance) arrives for an extended visit. But Joe’s good intentions sometimes backfire and cause problems for him, his boys and the local moms who view Joe’s parenting as dangerously unorthodox. And you can’t blame them: Joe is a essentially a nice guy, but watch those little boys swinging wildly from the trees at Artie’s birthday party, and you have to wonder if permissiveness is really the safest way to go.
Allan Cubitt’s screenplay deftly straddles the line between sensitivity and humor, and the script rarely wanders into Too-Too-Obvious territory. (Joe, for example, may be a slob, but he is intelligent enough to operate a washing machine, unlike most single dads in American movies). The film’s ethereal soundtrack by Iceland’s Sigur Rós is a melancholy yet lovely accompaniment.
Owen, who doesn’t get many roles like this but should be signed for more, brings a compelling and sturdy realism to Joe, making him likable but not insufferable. The best thing about The Boys Are Back — gorgeously shot on southern Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, where much of Shine was filmed — is that it’s not interested in doling out platitudes or easy answers. It aims — successfully — to make you think and feel.
Cast: Clive Owen, Laura Fraser, George MacKay, Emma Booth
Director: Scott Hicks.
Screenwriter: Allan Cubitt. Based on the book by Simon Carr.
Producers: Greg Brenman, Timothy White.
A Miramax release. Running time: 104 minutes. Some sexual language, thematic elements.