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The teen comedy is a notoriously tricky genre. It needs to have a “positive message” without hitting you over the head with it, and it needs to seem funny to teens without endorsing delinquent behavior. Most importantly, the characters need to be “relatable” while also being good role models, which is a tall order if the characters are played by twenty-three year olds and written by forty-five year olds.
Fat Kid Rules the World, the directorial debut of actor Matthew Lillard, looks like a dubious contender for overcoming these obstacles. The title alone suggests a quasi-inspirational “feel-good” comedy full of platitudes about learning to love yourself and discovering who you are. And those things do happen to our protagonist, Troy (Jacob Wysocki), but the journey he goes on is much darker than you might expect.
Walking home from school, Troy deliberately steps in front of an oncoming bus and is shoved out of the way by stoner musician Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who immediately shatters any illusion of a friend meet-cute by hitting Troy up for money. The two run into each other again at school the next day, and Marcus charms Troy out of another eight dollars by telling him they should start a band. We find out Marcus has been kicked out of his existing band for mooching off his bandmates, and that Troy is grieving the recent death of his mother and feeling ostracized by his strict former Marine father and overachieving younger brother.
The two embark on an uneasy friendship, predicated largely on Marcus’s insistence that Troy learn to play the drums for their newly formed band, The Tectonics. Troy defies his father’s rules—for what we have to imagine is the first time—to play a garage show with Marcus, and he becomes an overnight Youtube sensation when he gets so nervous that he projectile vomits onstage. Despite this embarrassment, Troy starts to come out of his shell, but Marcus seems hell-bent on self-destruction. Troy has to choose whether to help his friend while everyone—including Marcus himself—tells him Marcus isn’t worth saving.
Troy and Marcus emerge as heartbreakingly real, three-dimensional characters. Both are stuck in intensely painful situations they’re not equipped to handle, and both resort to self-destructive behavior. Troy turns inward, overeating and trying to be invisible. At the beginning of the movie, everything about him is tentative. His voice is barely audible and he plays the drums timidly, as if he’s trying not to be too loud. Marcus is the opposite, directing all his energy outward in an effort to charm everyone around him into rescuing him. He shows up at the bar where his former bandmates work and demands that one of them teach Troy how to play the drums. You can see the weariness on their faces as they try to get rid of him with as few casualties as possible.
The movie doesn’t downplay the seriousness of Marcus’s addiction. Troy’s personal growth happens almost without him realizing it, through subtle changes in his demeanor (thanks to a masterfully calibrated performance by Wysocki). He begins projecting his voice and walking with purpose instead of tiptoeing around. What he doesn’t do is lose weight. By the end of the film he seems set on an emotionally healthier path, but there’s no suggestion that he’s actively trying to lose weight. The real sign that he’s grown as a person (no pun intended) is the way he responds to Marcus’s devastating claim, near the end of the film, that he was only using Troy and that the two of them never had a real friendship, let alone a band. Troy’s response is so courageous I almost got misty-eyed, and the film doesn’t mend their rift as neatly as you might expect, considering how closely it follows what is essentially a rom-com structure.
It’s hard to imagine even the most cynical teenager (or adult) turning their nose up at Fat Kid Rules the World. It’s endearing, original, and life-affirming.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.