The title Measure of a Man feels a little bit bland – a little bit perfunctory, even – especially given the title of its source novel, One Fat Summer. But alas, in times like ours, maybe it’s not the best idea to draw attention to your lead character’s weight right off the bat. Not that it’s a hidden aspect of the movie, but in that it’s only one small aspect of the difficulties faced by our hero, Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper). His is a story that many young people can relate to – he’s awkward, hormonal, and sees himself as physically inferior to the boys that surround him – and even though the film is rather plain, the central characterization makes this breezy beach read of a movie a thorough joy.
It’s the summer of 1976, and the Marks family is about to begin their yearly vacation to “the lake.” Think Dirty Dancing. The resort area is in a seasonal town, where rich city folk gather during the summer much to the dismay of the townies. There are camps for the kids, activities for the adults, and a million different “summery” ways to pass the time. Bobby, however, is disinterested in most of the social activities that on offer, instead preferring to do his own thing. Namely, eating snacks, watching TV and awkwardly courting his regular summertime non-fling, a fellow outcast named Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell). But when Joanie reveals that she will be spending much of her summer away from the lake for undisclosed reasons, Bobby finds himself on his own. Despite the protestations of his no nonsense father (Luike WIlson), he has decided not to join any of the local camps or to become a counselor like his social butterfly of an older sister (Liana Liberto). Instead, he takes a job tending to the property of an older retiree, Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland).
Measure of a Man, is the purest essence of the “coming of age” tale, invoking all of the typical stressors that a young person may face while trying to self-define. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking going on here, but that’s ultimately where much of the enjoyment comes from. When I look back on my adolescent years, they hardly feel cinematic, but in the moment, each and every day felt like the most important day of my life. Every girl that looked my way was the one. Every new hobby I took up was going to be my ticket out of this hell hole. Every thought I had was world changing and brilliant. I can imagine that had I been fifteen while watching Measure of a Man, I’d be talking about Oscars.
But here I am. Thirty three years old and happy as a clam, an entire teenager distant from being a teenager. From where I stand now I want to reach through the screen and grab Bobby Marks by his sweaty lapels and say, “Dude, don’t let any of this nonsense bug you. I promise you that none of it is of import, and no matter how bad it all seems you will one day look back on it with a fondness you couldn’t possibly comprehend!” And it’s through this lens that David Searce’s screenplay, based on Robert Lipsyte’s semi-autobiographical source novel, finds its voice and its honesty. No, these aren’t earth shattering events, but to Bobby they mean the world.
While the main story arc follows Bobby through what turns out to be a very formative summer, the film is populated with ancillary plot details that, while not fully fleshed out, are the kinds of things that can affect a young person without them even knowing it. Bobby’s sister is working her way through young womanhood, which is a strange thing for a young man to witness. His parents are working through marital issues that are way above his familial pay grade, but affect his mentality nonetheless. Add to that a handful of bullies and the omnipresent tensions between the summer crowd and the locals, and you’ve got yourself a summer vacation that isn’t as relaxing as everyone wants it to be.
In a particularly touching scene Bobby’s mother (Judy Greer) asks him if he’s okay. When he responds with the affirmative she asks “would you even tell me if you weren’t?” Shortly thereafter Bobby is given reason to ask his mom the exact same thing. It’s a wonderful moment of bonding in which both he and his mother reveal that sometimes looking strong is not the same as feeling strong… but it’ll have to do.
Donald Sutherland isn’t given as much to do here as one would hope, but there is a certain joy to watching him dispense sometimes stern, always avuncular wisdom to young Bobby, the brand of which he clearly does not receive from his father. These scenes are peppered throughout the narrative and often request that we buy into them as thematically heavier than they are, and while this can be frustrating, I must once again relate the lens of hindsight. These moments seem fleeting (and a few are hidden behind a montage), but to Bobby, they are monumental. I wonder if the film could’ve captured this monumentality in a better way, but I also wonder if that would betray the relaxed tone, which is ultimately the film’s greatest strength.
Because of the invocation of many different social forces, Measure of a Man finds a sweet spot where anyone, regardless of age or gender, can find something to latch onto for its scant runtime. But if you just so happen to have spent time as a teenage boy, especially one who felt himself an outcast, you will be moved. What a soundtrack too!
Measure of a Man opens May 11 at Ritz Bourse.