Almost Kings (The Wheeler Boys)
one of the most enjoyable aspects of reviewing films is when I receive a screener for a movie I hadn’t heard about yet it exhibits such ingenuity and style that I’m blown away but it’s quality. It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced this feeling but that evaporated when I opened a title from ‘Broken Glass Pictures’, ‘Almost Kings’. If you are a mainstream kind of movie buff you might not be aware of this distributor but for the true aficionados of the cinematic arts they are a source of some of the best independent films I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. One of the most recent is a little gem entitled, ‘Almost Kings’. Many films have dealt with the turbulence inherent with the teen years. In most cases the stories are mitigated with the need to have a typical Hollywood ending that provides a good feeling for the audiences after the closing credits have finished rolling. This film written and directed by Philip G. Flores was not created under the same limitations on creativity and expression typically found in a major studio production. This film was unencumbered by such predominately fiduciary inclined parameters of a feature film. The first thing that was impressive about this movie is the sense of gritty realism pervading the story. ‘Almost King’ is about a youth gang. You might be inclined to roll you eyes certain you’ve seen this tale related many times before. Mostly they concentrate on the violence intrinsically found in street gangs. Others look at the socio-economic foundation for such units that rely on our inborn need to be part of a social inclusion. The usual plot is when teens feel disenfranchised by parents, teachers and society in general they form their own social construct, a gang. While this work does not shy away from the violence or gloss over the sociological implication of gangs the emphasis is much more concentrated; relating the larger picture through the microcosm of one boy’s need to fit in and find respect. This heightens the emotional impact so that the film pounds into your consciousness with the emotional impact of a charging elephant. While this is not the type of film that is prone to profitable box office returns it exposes a very real aspect of the vast human experience. It is a story that deserves to be told but for the sake of the film industry but rather as part of the tapestry of cinema as an artistic reflection of our humanity.
The relationship between brothers is one of the oldest foundations for telling a story. From Cain and Abel forward every single culture has stories pertaining to the complicated relationship between male siblings. After all throughout time brothers have been forced into competition with each other frequently with the younger brother living in the shadow of his older brother. Stories like this are rich in potential and have been well used through the years. In ‘Almost Kings’ the movie centers on high school freshman, Ted Wheeler (Lorenzo James Henrie). His life has always been eclipsed by his older brother Truck (Alex Frost). A couple of years ahead of Ted, Truck were successful in the things that matter in high school particularly as his moniker might imply football. The adult in the household, their father Ron ((Billy Campbell) is bitter due to his paralysis lashing abusively out on his sons in s vain attempt to quell his anger and resentment. Ron is so completely collapsed into a dank hole of depression he is uncaring devoid of any parental concerns. This is another place where the script fir this film differentiates itself from other teen angst flick in the skillful way Flores constructs the circumstances the brothers must endure. The onus is deftly shifted from the usual teens in emotional crisis mode to a skillful inspection of one teen’s difficulties with his transition to manhood. Rather than take on the old chestnut of our cultures lack of a formal ceremony to mark adulthood Flores concentrates his story on one individual eschewing generalization for the intimacy of a personalized account.
The one thing that Ted covets the most is Truck’s respect. His older brother has always easily garnered the accolades of others but for Ted it was a constant battle to stand out in Truck’s eyes. The opinion of his father is worthless, Ron has always been emotionally distant but brother rely on each other and Ted needed Truck’s approval. Ted takes a road that will soon fill him with regret; he begins to hang out with a local gang of toughs, the ‘Kings’. In order to formerly become a member of the Kings Ted has to prove his merit to the membership. The indoctrination is intended to test his resolve and generally humiliate Ted but within the context of the film we are witness to a young man facing intensely difficult moral dilemmas. This is the heart of this movie the fashion that Ted is shown in an untenable situation. He has to overcome a basically good nature to do this he considers morally reprehensible in order to make the grade with his new associates. All of this it to make Truck notice him. It is a taut psychological drama that dissects the inner turmoil of this young man. When he is asked to take advantage of a young woman, Emily (Olivia Crocicchia), who passed out at a party Ted is conflicted, sicken by the prospect of rape but afraid of losing his chance to prove himself. Rather that appear weak in front of the Kings he slices himself to bolster his claim that he took the girl’s virginity. Ultimately the worse truth that Ted is forced to face is the true nature of his older brother. This revelation not only shakes Ted’s view of Truck it seriously undermines the foundation of his life.
The acting here is incredible. It comes across like the little off Broadway play I used to see in Greenwich Village; the kind were you sit on folding chairs encircling the area used as a stage. It is that feeling of immediacy that pulls you into the film making you see the characters as fully realized human beings, tragically flawed and believable. Alex Frost, Truck’, is young but already a seasoned actor. One of his prior roles was in another Indy favorite of mine, ‘Elephant’, one of the most emotionally credible school shooting films out there. Henrie has some film and television experience but this movie is a vehicle that showcases what he is capable of accomplishing in his profession. One of the highlights of the performances here is given by journeyman actor, Billy Campbell. He turns up all over the place with significant roles in television’s ‘4400’ and the American version of ‘The Killing’. His presentation of Ron as a man as dark and twisted emotionally as his body is broken is compelling. Flores is an actor’s director; one who knows the best way to guide his cast to great performances. I greatly anticipate watch his career as it flourishes.