Some ideas sounds better on paper than they do in execution. In one character study, a devoted boyfriend discovers his girlfriend is cheating on him (The Room), whereas in a genre-mashup space western, a warrior monk and a farm boy partner with a crook to save a princess from capture (Star Wars). Both of these films achieved high notoriety, yet for dramatically different reasons. Falling into the former, writer/director Robert Scoot Wildes’s first feature, Poor Boy, may not be destined for greatness, but that doesn’t stop it from swinging for the fences the whole way.
Griggs brothers Romeo (Lou Taylor Pucci of 2013’s Evil Dead) and Samson (Dov Tiefenbach of Literally, Right Before Aaron) are constantly moving from one hustle to the next. Whether it’s backyard fighting, cockfighting, gambling on volleyball, or anything else that’ll make them some coin, these boys are determined to raise as much cash as they can so they can buy a boat and sail off to California. But moving from one scam to another is no way to live and the boys know it. They come up with one big plan to make all the money they need. All of that seems to be threatened when a mysterious woman (Dale Dickey of Hell or High Water) arrives in town looking for the boys.
Put simply, Poor Boy is a frustrating contradiction. It’s a simple story enacted in the most complicated manner possible. A somber, thoughtful opening following a nameless rodeo clown portrayed by Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) gives way to a chaotic exchange between Romeo, Samson, and the cops. Where the camera was still, focused on Shannon’s clown as he goes from the quiet solitude of drinking in his truck to the escalating roar of the crowd as he nears the ring, it becomes unhinged, as if tossing back and forth as the boys grapple with cop-in-charge Vern (Pay Healy of The Post). In one regard, Wildes’s shift in direction denotes the tonal difference between the clown and the boys in a compelling way; however, the camera maintains that free-floating style throughout the rest of the film, making it harder to take in what’s happening to whom, as it’s almost dizzying to the point of distraction. Compounded by the fact that there’s little to no introduction to the characters, the audience’s forced to scramble for whatever connection they can create. This, of course, doesn’t help when the characters themselves contradict what we’ve observed. For example, while it doesn’t matter to the story which Griggs brother is older, the fact that some call Romeo the oldest and others Samson, just continues the idea that these boys are an enigma. The only true defining traits they have as individuals is that Romeo is a charismatic idea-man, while Samson is a stoic follower.
Considering the whole of Poor Boy is character-driven, it’s a shame that the script co-written by Wildes and Logan Antill didn’t utilize more establishing techniques. While there are several aspects on display that inspire curiosity (take the strangely funny first date between Amy Ferguson’s Cynthia and Samson), there’s nothing that pushes the audience toward finding out the answers nor a real catalyst prompting the boys’ ever-increasing gambits for cash. This isn’t to say that a film should provide all the answers, just that it should make the audience desire them. The characters can amble on as much as they want, as long as the audience wants to walk along with them.
Where Poor Boy achieves high marks is the casting, and this film runneth over with characters. The audience may not know much about the Griggs boys, but Pucci and Tiefenbach ensure that we can’t stop watching them. Pucci’s overflowing with charisma as Romeo, the motor mouth schemer who’s aware of how small their lives are and desperately wants to become something more; whereas Tiefenbach’s Samson uses largely subtle physical changes and quietly delivered dialogue to convey an a charming earnestness. While there’s little within the story to tether the audience to the characters, the performances themselves are enthralling. Revolving around the boys, Dickey, Haley, Shannon, and the others mostly populate the world of Poor Boy with objects for Romeo and Samson to bounce off of in the metaphorical sense. Oddly, the mystery woman, the barely seen Vern, and the nameless rodeo clown come off as more fully formed through their short time on screen than the focal points of the film. Perhaps because the audience needs to know who these three are more quickly or perhaps due to the high quality performances from these three, their needs, motivations, and identifies are more solidly established than either of the Griggs boys, adding to the increasing frustration of the film.
Though Poor Boy possesses some interesting design choices which all reconnect back to the story – a VHS tracking motif that appears frequently through the film as mini-montages, the stars appearing to emanate out from Samson, a heavy-handedness with the camera suggestive of the boys’ own directing style for their homemade movies – none of them coalesce in a way that helps Wildes and Antill’s story of two devoted brothers trying to get out of the landlocked desert they’ve found themselves in. Filled with great dialogue and engaging performances, Poor Boy doesn’t deliver in the way audiences will expect, which, itself, is disappointing. There’s a lot to enjoy about Poor Boy, but as it fails to deliver on its intriguing promise of story by focusing solely on characters, the whole of the experience falls apart.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.