Standing Up begins and ends with a reference to God. In between, Howie and Grace confront a childhood trauma with a mix of fragility, resiliency, and candor that is rare in a “message” movie and rarer still in a “Christian” film.
Based on Brock Cole’s novel The Goats, Standing Up begins with a camp bullying tradition. The campers select one boy and one girl misfit, row them to a small island off the camp shore, strip them naked, and leave them to await the mob’s return. That’s a summary that sets off all sorts of red flags, and if D. J. Caruso’s direction had even a whiff of a hint of voyeurism or titillation, the film could have gone off the rails in the first five minutes.
The attack itself (on Howie–Grace’s is stripping is done off screen) conveys just the right amount of desperate thrashing to convey the terror, but it isn’t lingered over the way so many attacks are in modern film or television. It helps that it comes at the beginning and it helps more that Caruso (who is credited with the screenplay as well) knows that there will be other emotional highs and lows throughout the story. The film doesn’t put all its emotional eggs in one basket, and as a result doesn’t rub our faces in anger or outrage, numbing us to all else.
The first fifteen minutes–and to a lesser extent the rest of the film–are about mechanical plot problems. How to credibly keep the kids alone and on their own after they find clothes, food, a phone, and are able to contact an adult. Credibility is stretched a tad, particularly in the first call to Grace’s mom and in the (non)reactions of the camp director. We don’t mind so much, though, because this is a film about the kids and especially about their emotional and, yes, spiritual development.
“Would you have helped [the other camper] if they chose her?” Howie asks. I appreciated that the film was honest enough to have Grace say that she doesn’t know. The kids learn a range of lessons from the experience, and there is genuine moral complexity both in their experience and the way they process it.
“God has a way of giving you what you need when times get tough,” Grace says. In her realization there are echoes not just of Job, the avatar so many modern victims (especially Christians) relate to, but also Joseph–he of the “you meant it for evil but God used it for good” pronouncement. Both Joseph and Job are archtypes of suffering, yet we tend to see more figures of the latter than the former.
Perhaps that is because there is a tough paradox at the heart of any “you meant it for evil but God used it for good” experiences that is harder to capture and represent in narratives. Part of what elevates this material beyond sermon is that paradox. Good comes from the bullying. Grace and Howie find each other. With each other to lean on, they tough it out and grow stronger for greater challenges ahead. They show seeds of compassion that so often get lost if patterns of victimization are set too early. It is a delicate balance to acknowledge those positives without seeming to use them as justifications for (or dismissals of) the root trauma. Yet it is through acknowledging them that something other than bitterness can grow out of the soil of our deepest pains.
Standing Up is not without cinematic flaws. I question some of the music choices (which appear to me to be too on-the-nose for material that is actually somewhat complex), and an episode with Val Kilmer as a very strange deputy both falls flat and feels like a gratuitous digression. Thematically, the danger Kilmer’s character represents belongs in a different movie, and structurally we’ve already moved emotionally from processing physical danger to charting emotional growth, so this episode feels like a step backward.
That said, there’s a lot to recommend here. I like that some of the kids at a neighboring camp show kindness and compassion; this, too, is life. I like that Howie and Grace feel guilty about stealing even when they are in abject poverty. Canterbury and Basso both give professional performances, by which I mean their kids come across as kids and not as professional performers. Both actors seem to get that trauma makes certain kids more guarded, not more expressive, and that kids have emerging but not yet fully developed control over their emotions as well as their bodies.
It’s a family film and so will be too simple for some, too wholesome for others. But as a representative of its genre, it is quite effective. I found it preferable to most other (more overtly) “Christian” fare currently available and way better than the sorts of television movies one might see on (allegedly) family cable channels.
Oh, and while I’m giving out praise in directions I don’t always send it–kudos to Wal-Mart for being an early adopter and giving the film a distribution push.