This ain't your parents' idea of a kids movie.
FUNERAL KINGS is the debut feature film from Kevin and Matthew McManus, and one of the most confident, assured first films that I've seen in years. What seems like a simple coming-of-age story, taking place during one particularly chaotic week in the lives of three young men feverishly grasping for an adulthood that is just out of their reach, turns out to be my favorite film of SXSW, and one of my personal favorite films of the year so far.
What's refreshing about FUNERAL KINGS is its complete lack of nostalgia for childhood. The McManus brothers remember that time in every boy's life - so very interested in girls, but just on that side of young to be unable to do anything about it; a child's exhuberance and innocence all hidden behind pumped-up bravado and braggadocio - and they remember that at times it just plain sucked to be a kid, especially when you're at that moment in your life that is neither adult or child, with all the yearnings of adulthood but the physicality and innocence of just being so young that it seems a million years away before you get to do anything cool.
Andy (Dylan Hartigan) and Charlie (Alex Maizus) are altar boys at the Catholic school they attend, and they work funeral duty, which would seem like a crap job except for the fact that when a funeral happens they get to get out of class and spend the day hanging out, smoking cigarettes, and dropping so many F-bombs in regular conversation it's like they invented the word. When the third altar boy who works with them gets sent to juvenile hall, a new kid to school becomes a part of their dynamic - David (Jordan Puzzo), who unlike Andy and Charlie is still reveling in his childhood and not as eager as the other two to dive into that more complicated world of girls and sex.
But David's done something the other two haven't - he's been in a movie, a movie that because it's R rated he hasn't seen. So Andy and Charlie decide to take this naive boy and bring them into their world, skipping school, hanging out, and frequenting the local video store owned by Iggy (Kevin Corrigan), which might just be a front for more criminal activities. When an older kid, Bobby (Brandon Waltz) hides a big trunk at Andy's house, the three conspire to break it open and see what's in it. The movie isn't so much about what's hidden in the trunk - if you watch the trailer you get some idea - but what the boys do with it. Throughout the tumultuous week there's a party that the boys manage to get invited to due to David's celebrity. There's also their friend Felix (Charles Kwame Odei) who seems to be much more at ease with girls than they are, and older kid Ryan (P. J. McCabe), who may be in serious trouble with some serious people.
FUNERAL KINGS has quite a few characters to keep up with, but it wisely stays focused on the three boys Andy, Charlie, and David. Andy and Charlie are ready to leap into adulthood, but David is still a kid at heart, into childlike things. And while Andy and Charlie are in the full grip of adolescence, there's something about David's innocence and simplicity that they latch on to - perhaps it was just a lot simpler back then, playing game cards and just being a kid. But they can't look back now, and they drag David with them into a much larger world than they've experienced before.
I'm a sucker for movies like this. But FUNERAL KINGS doesn't sugarcoat those awkward years in any way - as I said before, this is nostalgia-free and honest in its portrayal of being on the cusp of adulthood - and yet, the filmmakers also realize that there comes a time in every boy's life that you have to choose your friends and share the most painful, intimate moments with them. I grew up in Catholic school, and so I really identified with these kids and their problems. These boys are definitely from my world.
Did I mention the language? Yeah, these kids swear like every kid I ever knew back then. There's something so genuine about the word "fuck" just being peppered into everyday conversation like it is in the dialogue, but the McManus brothers completely nail that cadence and rhythm of boys shooting the shit. The soundtrack is phenomenal, a mix of hip-hop that makes the movie feel alive and with a pulse.
And then there are the performances, which are so genuine that this movie doesn't feel scripted at all. It feels lived in. We'll be seeing Jordan Puzzo later in the year in Wes Anderson's MOONLIGHT KINGDOM, Dylan Hartigan is terrific as Andy, but the real revelation here is Alex Maizus, a kid with the face of an angel and the mouth of an open sewer. His rage at just not-quite-being a grownup yet is palpable, and he nails that angry aspect of adolescence of being unable to do anything about it. FUNERAL KINGS has some of the best child performances I've seen in a long time, even if their parents on set turned white at hearing their little beauties drop the F-bomb every few minutes.
FUNERAL KINGS is a hell of a debut - the cinematography is gorgeous, the performances are all fantastic, and it feels like a movie that comes from a real place and time in these filmmakers' lives. Sometimes kids want to be grownups so badly that they'll do anything, including stealing a gun and playing at being men, but in the end, they really are kids, confused and upset that their world is about to get a whole lot bigger and they might not be prepared to handle it. The McManus Brothers have captured that moment perfectly, and the result is one of the best movies of the year.