Project Greenlight greenlit a worthy project this time. The second film produced under Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s contest for amateur filmmakers, “The Battle of Shaker Heights” is fresh, lively and funny, a heightened slice of teenage life that’s unafraid to shun cliche.
It's a huge improvement over last year’s Project Greenlight winner, the cloying, insufferable “Stolen Summer,” which went wrong in every way you’d expect from an amateur writer-director’s maiden effort.
Damon and Affleck divvied up the contest this time, giving the directing prize to whoever submitted the best short film, rather than simply allowing the winning screenwriter to direct. This has the expected result: “The Battle of Shaker Heights” is by far a more professional, well-made movie.
But the best move by neophyte screenwriter Erica Beeney and co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle was to cast a 17-year-old lead actor who’s a salty showbiz veteran compared to them. Shia LaBeouf, who starred earlier this year in Disney’s well-received “Holes,” makes Beeney’s dialogue crackle and shimmer.
As Kelly Ernswiler, LaBeouf tackles a role that verges on overly contrived preciousness — a shy high school senior who’s a passionate World War II re-enactor — and makes it robust and true. With his mixture of charm and awkwardness, easy wit and tortured introspection, it makes sense that Kelly can be a stud on the mock battlefield and a target for bullying at school. (His chief adversary is smaller than he is: Beeney rightly observes that bullying can be more about attitude than physical strength.)
An engaging protagonist
Kelly is an endearing eccentric, a kindred spirit of Max Fischer’s in “Rushmore” — a kid who’s working so many angles at once that he neglects what’s important. His obsession with military history is a rebellion against his pacifist but emotionally absent parents: Mom (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist who trains Chinese immigrants to reproduce her saccharine, easy-to-sell paintings; Dad (William Sadler) is a recovering drug addict who’s more of a father to his fellow 12-steppers than he’s ever been to Kelly.
But Kelly finds a friend in Bart Bowland (Elden Henson), a preppy pushover who also participates in war re-enactments. Kelly, who lives on the outskirts of the affluent Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, finds himself spending time at Bart’s sprawling mansion, where, to his delight, he meets Bart’s soon-to-be-married older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart).
Tabby is a painter, and Kelly tries to woo her with his professed knowledge of art (“Isn’t acrylic a bit jejune?” he asks). Because a romance between them is so unlikely, he has an easier time pursuing Tabby than he does his adorable co-worker at a grocery store (Shiri Appleby), who clearly likes him and tolerates his quirks in a way few of his peers do.
Perhaps because of the length restrictions set upon scripts submitted to Project Greenlight, “The Battle of Shaker Heights” clocks in at less than an hour and a half, and it really ought to be longer. The resolution is too quick, too pat, as if Kelly realizes instantly he’s at a low point and decides to make everything right. Five minutes of screen time later, everything is.
Yet our desire to see things work out for Kelly is never in doubt because of LaBeouf’s performance: We delight in his triumphs and wince at his setbacks. The supporting cast, particularly Henson and Appleby, is strong as well: They’re people we want to get to know better.
While not everything clicks in “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” it’s a work of insight and heart.