“Life is a journey to be traveled no matter how bad the road,” narrates Joe Warr — Clive Owen, “Duplicity” — as he drives his jeep along a shimmering Australian beach, his son gleefully planted on the hood of the car. Joe’s “bad road,” resulting from the sudden death of his wife and his efforts to continue his journey, is chronicled in “The Boys are Back.” The film operates in much the same way as this piece of advice: it may be obvious and overly melodramatic, but it’s still quite effective.
‘The Boys are Back’
At the Michigan
After losing his wife, Joe is thrust into an unfamiliar territory — parenthood. Being one of Australia’s top sportswriters, Joe was constantly traveling to various events, serving as a prototypical absentee father to his seven-year old son Artie (newcomer Nicholas McAnulty). Though provided with the opportunity to dump Artie off at his grandmother’s, Joe accepts the child-rearing challenge, causing the inevitable tears and blunders, but also some charming moments of father-son bonding.
At home, Joe creates a utopia for children and Ron Paul enthusiasts everywhere, establishing a strongly libertarian environment — more rules only lead to more crimes, as he claims. He lets Artie run wild — playing soccer indoors, eating junk food and starting impromptu water balloon fights. Joe’s approach to parenting certainly accomplishes his goal: winning over the affections of his son and helping him cope with the death of his mother — but he doesn’t anticipate the obvious consequences of laissez-faire parenthood, namely, excessively spoiling his son.
The film isn’t afraid to lambaste its protagonist, uncovering Joe as a deeply flawed man who destroyed one family and must now repair another. The remnant of his first family, Joe’s now-teenage son Harry (George MacKay, “Defiance”, bearing a strong resemblance to Ron Weasley), further complicates matters by coming to Australia to stay with his father and half-brother. Though Harry seems to enjoy this rare quality time with family, his resentment of his father for abandoning him is clearly smoldering under the surface, with the audience just waiting for it to explode.
“The Boys are Back” is able to survive its familiar formula — a broken family fighting through a crisis — mainly due to the strength of its performances. Clive Owen is famous for his roguish nature, so it is painful to watch his cheekiness dissolve into anguish after the death of his wife. One expects men like him to remain steadfast even in the face of tragedy, which makes the moment when he breaks down sobbing in the middle of a desolate field even more heart wrenching. Equally strong is young Nicholas McAnulty, who nails his character’s inability to comprehend why he will never see his mother again.
At its start, “The Boys are Back” emphasizes the arid fields of the Australian landscape, baked yellow from the scorching sun. This is a perfect reflection of the unbelievable suffering experienced by the characters, a tragedy from which past demons are eventually exorcised and reconciliation is found. After all, “The Boys are Back” is about the redemption of Joe Warr, who transforms throughout this moving, tender film into a better man and better father.