Who knew that a coming-of-age story of a fully grown 38-year old man could provide the foundation of such a solid comedy/drama? Who knew that the directors of American Pie could serve up such a heartfelt film about an 11-year old kid’s struggles to get himself a father figure to help him and his depressive mother? About a Boy throws all such notions out of the window by providing exactly such a film. Genuinely funny, witty, emotional and dramatic when it needs to be, without a hint of melodrama in sight; this is simply the best film I’ve had the privilege of seeing in a long time.
Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is about as irresponsible a man as anyone can be. He hates working, lives off royalty money provided by his father’s only hit single, hates being in a relationship lasting more than a few night-time fantasies and even fewer months, refuses to be godfather to his friend’s second child because he knows he is not up for it, and spends life by splitting days into units of time and wasting each unit doing something of no consequence. On one of his forays into SPAT (Single Parent’s Alone Together) where he hopes to strike it out with Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), into his life comes 11-year old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) unfortunately. Marcus has issues of his own such as an eternally depressive mother (Toni Collette) who is on the verge of falling over. Obviously, Marcus sees in Will something of a father figure and takes to him while also providing the latter with a basic form of responsibility; and they both bond. Complications arise when Will actually falls for another single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and is forced to reveal the nature of his relationship with Marcus.
While the basic framework of the story seems completely predictable, what makes it such an engrossing watch is the voice-over narrations from both Will and Marcus. These provide incredible insight into the minds of both of these interesting characters. They are also structured in a manner where one person’s thought-process sort of leads into the other’s. It also serves in displaying the contrast between them – such as Will’s lack of responsibility and Marcus caring for the well-being of his mother - and how they are helping each other out. This makes the voice-overs extremely satisfying which isn’t often the case when they are used.
The narrative is good, but the actors are the lynchpin of the film. I’ve often wondered aloud that Hugh Grant could play a psychopathic serial killer and the audience will still like him. Will is not quite at that level; he has his flaws, more so than most others, but is still a likeable individual. Grant’s strengths as an actor of incredible ability are on full display here. The nonchalant manner in which he makes acting seem so effortless is quite amazing considering he has repeatedly stated that he never wanted to be an actor in the first place. His wry/satirical voice is also perfectly suited for the voice-overs.
Nicholas Hoult, recently seen as Beast in X-Men: First Class, is a great fit for the role of Marcus. The film avoids the pitfall of making such a character incredibly cute and over-smart that it is often annoying for the viewers; and he more than plays his part in the process. Toni Collette is a great character actress, as The Sixth Sense has already proven, and imbibes her character with enough humanity that we don’t feel completely disconnected from Fiona. Rachel Weisz is her usual pretty self in what can be considered as an extended cameo.
About a Boy is the kind of movie we don’t see that often these days. There are just too many instances where the directors (Chris and Paul Weitz) could’ve taken the easy way out and tried to be manipulative and melodramatic, but they never allow that to happen. This results in making the slightly heavier portions – of which there are very few – really heartfelt because we relate to and care for these characters despite their flaws. Although the film maintains a light tone throughout, this is a great character study, and is a must-watch for anyone who likes films in general.