"The Boys Are Back," a sun-and-sorrow drenched story of love, loss and "free range" fatherhood starring Clive Owen, takes you back to a time not so long ago when kids hopped on bikes without helmets, jumped into lakes without water wings and onto trampolines without spotters, racing through childhood with reckless abandon.
And reckless abandon is probably the best attitude to adopt when watching this affectionate but sometimes terrifying tale of primal parenting in the hands of a Peter Pan of a dad.
Based loosely on British political reporter Simon Carr's difficult yet droll memoir recounting his attempts to rebuild his family after the death of his wife, it is a good story to put in the hands of director Scott Hicks, who has proved especially adept at films about men in crisis.
While Hicks does not reach the emotional resonance we saw in his eloquent 1996 "Shine," which earned Geoffrey Rush an Oscar as a pianist suffering and recovering from a breakdown, he does expose a charming, softer side of Owen as Joe Warr that we too rarely see.
The filmmaker and screenwriter Allan Cubitt, something of an adaptation specialist having done most notably "Anna Karenina" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" for British TV, have given us a lot of risky business to contend with inside Joe's world. An early scene of a jeep speeding along the ocean's edge, Joe laughing behind the wheel and his 5-year-old son Artie balancing on its hood, hand gripping a windshield wiper, head thrown back in sheer joy lets you know how frightening and glorious this wonderland will be. Just as clear is the subtext too -- what is there to fear when the worst has already happened?
It's not that Joe is irresponsible exactly; it's more that he was never really cut out for responsibility, as if parents have that option. A salty newspaper sportswriter, he spends most of his life following the exploits of this team or that, while wife Katy (Laura Fraser) raises young Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) in a bucolic rural retreat in South Australia, and ex-wife Flick (Natasha Little) raises his now teenage son Harry (George MacKay) back in Britain. Joe fills the role of drive-by dad quite contentedly.
But when cancer suddenly fells Katy, he is left to quickly figure out how to pull himself and his young son past the dark cloud left by the devastating loss of the much-loved wife and mother. For Joe, as much as the kids (in a typical teenage pique, young Harry decides to bail on Mom and try living with Dad), it's about how life sometimes forces our hand, though Joe resists for as long as he can with massive piles of takeout containers growing daily and giant laundry mountains overtaking the house.
The education of Dad is far from new terrain for Hollywood, but there is a certain restraint in the way Hicks lets the story unfold. "The Boys" has its share of the kind of crazy slapstick you expect to see on this learning curve, but the painterly photo-realistic style achieved by cinematographer Greig Fraser gives a low-key storybook feel to those moments -- a nicely done water balloon fight in the house comes to mind as does Artie's superhero leaps into a bubble bath.
Indeed, the lush look of South Australia's sweeping vistas, manicured vineyards and solitary beaches seen through Fraser's lens makes you want to book a trip, if nothing else.
Nearly equal time is, smartly, given to Owen's face. One of the most ruggedly compelling to come along since Paul Newman, it proves a good canvas for the emotional shadings of this story.
As much as "The Boys Are Back" puts us inside a very male world, Joe's evolution tends to come at the hands of the women in his life, who, in their own way, mother him along.
There are late-night conversations with his late wife; fights and reconciliations with her mother, well played by the fine actress Julia Blake; the patience of his ex and the ministrations of a hopeful single mom at Artie's school, Aussie actress Emma Booth.
But it is with the boys that Joe, and Owen, is at his best, with MacKay's Harry and McAnulty's Artie turning in textured portraits of childhood's various stages.
As is always the case, a reckoning will come, and it is here that the film falters most, taking father and sons to unnecessary extremes. In this, "The Boys Are Back" is a bit like the parenting it portrays -- at times there is pain, mistakes will be made, but if you can get beyond that, there is pleasure to be found.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: In limited release, locally at ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles