LOS ANGELES - The true-life drama "The Boys Are Back" delicately and deftly finds a balance that's hard to strike: It depicts death, and the way a family rebuilds and redefines itself afterward, without any mawkishness.
Director Scott Hicks' film, with its dreamlike, sun-splashed landscapes of Southern Australia, is visually arresting (the work of cinematographer Greig Fraser, who recently shot Jane Campion's luminous "Bright Star"). But the content of Allan Cubitt's script, based on Simon Carr's memoir, is meaty and straightforward, which gives it an unexpected power.
This is easily Hicks' best film since the Oscar-winning "Shine" way back in 1996 - since then, his work has included the admirable but uneven "Hearts in Atlantis" and "No Reservations." Much of the allure of "The Boys Are Back" comes from Clive Owen's complex performance; as a man learning how to function as a single father after the death of his wife, Owen shows great liveliness but also a natural vulnerability.
His character, sportswriter Joe Warr, takes a "Just Say Yes" attitude in raising his 6-year-old son (Nicholas McAnulty, disarming in his film debut), which makes for a lot of fun but it also results in chaos.
Joe's frustration in figuring out this whole parenting thing by himself provides inescapable reminders of Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer": Once again we have two men sharing a home, realizing they don't really know each other and unsure of how to relate as they work through their grief in different ways. Joe has travelled constantly for work, feeling secure that young Artie's daily routine was in the capable hands of his wife, Katy (Laura Fraser). Once Katy dies of cancer, Joe is left with all those responsibilities and not a clue about where to begin.
When he fixes the boy's breakfast and drives him to school, for example, he finds that little things like leaving the crusts on his toast send Artie into a tizzy. Meanwhile, Artie handles the much larger matter of his mother's death with surprising strength. At one point he asks Joe if he can die, too, so he can be with Mummy, and he does it with the kind of startling honesty that's peculiar to children.
But then the arrival of Harry (George MacKay), Joe's teenage son from his first marriage, changes the dynamic all over again. Harry has come from England for the summer with hopes of getting to know the father he always felt rejected him; in the process, he also becomes the big brother to a little boy he's never met, just when Artie could use some guidance the most. The family also gets some help from Laura (Emma Booth), the pretty, divorced mother of a girl in Artie's class.
It all sounds painfully sentimental - and, truthfully, we could have done without the repeated device in which Katy pops up posthumously to hang out with Joe and give him advice. It's gimmicky and it feels like a jarring distraction in a movie that's otherwise rooted in a very specific reality.
Mostly though, "The Boys Are Back" offers tearjerker moments without working too hard for them. They stem from everyday life. Three stars out of four.
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