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Dustin Putman

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The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Shiri Appleby, Kathleen Quinlan, William Sadler, Billy Kay, Ray Wise, Michael McShane, Anson Mount, Hattie Winston, Philipp Karner, Rick Cramer
2003 – 83 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for language and some drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 30, 2003.

First, a refresher course: Project Greenlight, started by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is a screenplay contest in which the winner gets to see his or her film come to life under the helm of Miramax Films and on a $1-million budget. The trials and travails of a screenwriter and director making their first significant motion picture with little to no experience is then documented for the viewing public to both snicker at and get behind on the HBO series of the same name. At the end of it all comes a finished project, to be released theatrically like any other big studio film. The first Project Greenlight contest in 2001 birthed Pete Jones' "Stolen Summer," a well-meaning but severely uneven and overly sentimental drama that was too cute by a half.

Written by Erica Beeney and directed by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, "The Battle of Shaker Heights" is the second Project Greenlight film, and it is leaps and bounds better than the first. In fact, so gentle and sweet and winningly written and acted is it that it fully deserves to stand on its own two feet without having to be known as "that Project Greenlight movie."

The antithesis of the current and brutal "Thirteen," "The Battle of Shaker Heights" is an immensely likable and good-natured coming-of-age tale reminiscent of, if not as incendiary as, the classic John Hughes teen films of the '80s. While there is no high school prom, thank God, the memorable characters that inhabit "The Battle of Shaker Heights" are either teenagers or college-aged, and hold the same observed intelligence and dreams that Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were blessed with in 1984's "Sixteen Candles" and 1985's "The Breakfast Club."

At the movie's center is Kelly Ernswiler (Shia LaBeouf), a high school senior who enjoys participating in area war reenactments and has a tendency of speaking what is on his mind without thinking of the consequences first. At the latest reenactment he attends, Kelly befriends Bart Bowland (Elden Henson), who is preparing to soon leave for the college that his well-to-do family expects him to go to. For reasons left to be discovered, college is not something Kelly is particularly interested in, even though he has no other immediate future plans. When he meets and immediately falls for Bart's beautiful Harvard grad sister, Tabby (Amy Smart), Kelly finally has something he believes is worth fighting for, even if Tabby is already engaged to be married. Meanwhile, Kelly fails to return the amiable advances of classmate and co-worker Sarah (Shiri Appleby), someone whom he is much more well-suited for.

"The Battle of Shaker Heights" may not have the power to change lives, but it is precisely the sort of innocent, well-developed slice-of-life picture that I always appreciate, and so rarely receive. The dialogue from Erica Beeney's screenplay is sharp and holds a number of very funny zingers that would be right at home in a Woody Allen picture. The comedy wisely comes out of natural human interaction and, only on a few sporadic occasions does it feel strained and go over-the-top. Beeney has an undeniable talent for finding the humor in things, but never forgets when it is time to concentrate on the more serious sides of the storylines.

Kelly is a genuine cinematic original in the way he seems to always have an answer for everything without trying, yet is so involved in his own devices that he constantly fails to see the most obvious things around him. Shia LaBeouf has had quite a prosperous year, making his major film debut in "Holes" and following it up with lesser supporting turns in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" and "Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd." In his most worthy role to do, LaBeouf makes Kelly his own, turning him into a three-dimensional person who is charming, smart, unintentionally self-involved, and impossible to dislike.

The supporting characters who surround him are all fully written and plausible, the kind of people you feel as if you wouldn't mind knowing in real life. The consistently promising Elden Henson (2001's "O") turns in another noteworthy turn as Kelly's new pal, Bart, who is afraid to stand up against his parent's mapped-out future for him. Amy Smart (2001's "Rat Race") is engaging and accessible as Tabby, the object of Kelly's idealistic desire. Credit their relationship for never becoming any more than it is—a pipe dream that leaves both parties understanding that, although they have a sort of connection, it can never be more than that. As Sarah, Shiri Appleby (2002's "Swimfan") brings considerable warmth to a part that we have all seen before—that of the best friend who pines for the protagonist; it is in Appleby's performance that it feels fresh. As Kelly's parents, who yearn to be closer to their son if only he would let them, Kathleen Quinlan (1998's "A Civil Action") and William Sadler (1999's "The Green Mile") round out the primary players.

There is no doubt at any point during "The Battle of Shaker Heights" how everything is going to turn out, and a handful of scenes ring false (the final war reenactment scene springs immediately to mind), but its predictability and very brief unveilings of amateur flourishes are overcome by a sincere heart and a game cast who delight in portraying the strong characters they have been given. Just like John Hughes' past oeuvre, everything ends for the best, and it leaves viewers with a big smile on their faces. And precisely as with Hughes' films, you find yourself missing the characters the second the end credits begin to roll.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman