“Standing Up” is a touching coming-of-age film based on teen novel

D. J. Caruso’s coming-of-age film “Standing Up” opens this weekend. It’s the tasteful film version of Brock Cole’s 1990 young adult (= young adolescent) novel “The Goats” and it has a B.K. rating – bring Kleenex. It’s a movie that ought to be required viewing for parents, teachers, and camp counselors.

11 year-old Howie (Chandler Canterbury) is with a group of boys at camp and enthusiastically agrees to collect wood for the fire on the island in the lake they have made off to after lights out.  But they are bullies and turn on him, take his clothes and leave him naked in the darkness.

12 year-old Grace (Annalise Basso) has agreed to join a group of girls so they can take down one of the popular girls. But it’s a set up. They turn on her, take her clothes and leave her naked, too. She makes her way to a tent and hides. Howie hears her sobbing and begs to be let in.  When the bullies come looking for Howie and Grace, the two children escape across the lake. Howie helps Grace because she cannot swim.

They find a cabin with some tattered clothes and loose change; Howie makes note of everything they take, vowing to pay back the owners. At a lakeside stand they steal better clothes and when they see other kids getting on busses, they stowaway, the other kids hiding them, and keeping their secret. When they arrive at camp, another bully torments them but their new friends understand, encourage them to call their parents, and hide them for the night. Grace and Howie go so long without a shower that they do, indeed, smell like goats.

Grace calls her mother, Meg (Radha Mitchell), who is divorced from Grace’s dad. She is busy at a corporate meeting. Meg doesn’t hear the panic in her daughter’s voice and tells her that camp will make her strong and to stay with it because three weeks isn’t that long.  In the end, Meg promises to come to see Grace for the weekend. Howie tells Grace that his parents are on an archeological dig in Greece so he has no one to call.

And on and on their survival journey goes, with Grace promising Howie that he can stay with her and her mom because they are determined not to return to camp. Howie takes photos of them with the camera he lifted from the first cabin but though neither of the youngsters are having a good time, they are becoming friends.

“Standing Up” is a very well produced film but for the first twenty or so minutes I thought I was in the middle of a horror film, not unlike what I remember feeling when I first saw “The Boy with the Green Hair.” Filmmaker Caruso knows how to engage the empathy of the audience because he makes you feel like you’re either there  or you’ve been there. You know what Grace and Howie must be going through, with the bullies after them, even if you loved camp as a kid (I did) because it’s either camp or some other ill-fitting situation.  The film never quite lightens up until the end and even then it’s reality, not fantasy. This is a good thing, because growing up is not a Hollywood movie, it’s living in a foster home, being a child of divorce, facing bullies, experiencing peer pressure and temptations, or not being able to communicate with your parents.  No adolescent has it easy, even if all their material needs are met, and the loneliness and struggles of these kids is palpable.

“Standing Up” is a close examination of the phenomenon of bullying. Even though Grace has never been popular, she agreed to join other kids in bringing down the popular girl. Later, Howie asks Grace if she would have helped that girl if she has been the victim and Grace honestly says, “I don’t know.”  Our culture puts  so much value on popularity and belonging, that even good kids make bad choices to be part of the pack. Howie is ahead of Grace in figuring things out and what the best thing is to do, and eventually we find out why.

There’s a lot to talk about in the film, and points of entry to engage all ages except for the very young.

Adults seldom come out looking good in films about adolescence and “Standing Up” is no different. The camp manager is a cliche’ which is too bad. He doesn’t even seem to realize the legal ramifications of what has happened. At one point a disheveled deputy sheriff (Val Kilmer) has the opportunity to bring the kids in but his behavior frightens them so much that they steal his truck for a short ride, Howie at the wheel and Grace working the pedals. They escape again by jumping off a cliff into water, preferring this to a scary adult. I suppose Kilmer’s character was supposed to be comic relief but in these days of Amber alerts and kidnapping of children, he was scary.

Grace’s mother Meg, however, can not imagine that anything like this could ever happen and once Grace tells her in the next phone call what the kids at camp had done, she is entirely present and involved.  A female sheriff and Grace’s counselor step up by the end as well.

The filmmaking is so effective that the isolation and loneliness of these kids builds up to the point where you can hardly take it. The performances of Chandler Canterbury and Annalise Basso are luminous and credible.

In a voice over at the end Grace says that God helps you when you need it the most, and God was looking out for them, even though they do not ask in the film.

“Standing Up” has a little “Moonrise Kingdom” in it, last year’s quirky and touching summer camp film. But “Standing Up” is a different story and it had me from the first minute.

When I see the commercials and YouTube videos and Facebook postings of dogs and cats who are abused and need rescuing, I always think of the children in abusive home environments and foster care and how many of these kids need rescuing and can be adopted. “Standing Up” is a brave film about brave children.

I hope that if you see this film you will be inspired to reach out and do something positive for children and teens, to at least see more clearly and listen more closely. But mostly, to honor the young people in your life for the blessings they are. No, there is no real comic relief in “Standing Up” but though it challenges parents and grown-ups, it is hopeful and inspiring because the kids are resourceful and resilient. It will leave you quietly, with a smile, as you reach for that box of tissues.

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