The new film Measure of a Man hit a little too close to home for me personally. That’s not a bad thing, by any stretch, but the story of an overweight, awkward teenager spending a summer on a lake resort in upstate New York in 1976 made me reflect on my own childhood in many ways.
I too was an overweight kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, and lot of the teasing and bullying that Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) goes through in the film are things that I’ve dealt with myself. Whereas some may find these scenes funny, for me, it took me back and made me analyze my own childhood and decisions that I made, and for this reason, I related to Bobby and Measure of a Man more than any other film in years.
As mentioned, Measure of a Man is the story of heavyset Bobby Marks and his family, including his sister Michelle (Liana Liberato), and his parents, Lenore and Marty (Just Greer and Luke Wilson), who summer at Lake Rumson each year. As Bobby explains in the opening narration, his dad lives all year for that trip each summer. Bobby’s best friend in the world is Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell), herself an outcast due to a rather large nose, and the two have been friends since they were in diapers. But this year is different, and Joanie tells Bobby early on that she has to go away, leaving him alone at the lake with the town bullies, led by Willie Rumson (Beau Knapp), and an unlikely ally in Peter Marino (Luke Benward), who has eyes for Bobby’s sister.
Bobby, without his friend to hang out with, finds a job as a caretaker for Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland), an old jewish man who doesn’t think Bobby has what it takes to care for his property, but gives him a chance anyway. Bobby being hired sets him in the crosshairs of Willie, who would usually get the job, which brings a new kind of hell onto Bobby’s pudgy shoulders.
Based off the novel One Fat Summer, by Robert Lipsyte, Measure of a Man does a solid job building the characters up, and the script by David Scearce gets the various subplots going, which include the bullies having a secret, the elder Marks’ marriage troubles bubbling to the surface, and Pete and Michelle sneaking off to do adult things, leaving Bobby to cover for her constantly. Even Joanie shows back up near the end of the second act with a surprise of her own, and all of this is set against the backdrop of Bobby and Dr. Kahn’s strange interactions and the elder man tries to help shape Bobby into something more than just some fat kid bumbling through life.
Blake Cooper carries the film as best as he can, but oftentimes, his reactions to what is happening around him seems disingenuous. Especially during the various bullying scenes. I’m not sure if this falls on Cooper, or on director Jim Loach, who just couldn’t seem to get a solid, believable performance during these scenes. And I say this as someone who’s been through it myself, so I’m measuring it against personal ethos here, and casual viewers may not feel the same way.
All of this changes at the very end of the Measure of Man, when Cooper’s Bobby finally seems to break out of his shell, but getting to that point was near excruciating. The one area where Cooper shines is in his interactions with Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn. These conversations felt real and Sutherland turns in a fine performance as the boy’s mentor/guiding voice.
Measure of a Man is a strong film that resonates deeply for people who were bullied as kids for things like their weight or various other imperfections. And at the core of the film is the idea that how we react to these challenges and how we let them shape us is how we are measured as we all continue to grow. While this is billed a comedy first and a drama second, for me, it was like looking in a mirror at times and the nostalgic trip down memory lane stung more than it tickled. But on the end, I sat, quietly reflecting, letting the film sink in, and my final takeaway was that all the stuff that I went through as fat kid helped shape who I am today, and if I’m measured by how I handled that diversity, I think I turned out just fine.
Measure of a Man is rated PG-13 and is in select theaters on May 11. It had a run at the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival, and was well received by audiences.
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