A “Coming of Age” film, in which a contemporary narrator reflects upon a seminal occurrence of his/her youth, can be a cinematic landmine for an inexperienced director. In the wrong hands, the story can come off as maudlin and self-indulgent. However, if done well, movies in this genre have a profound power that can express how the long shadow of the past often colors the present. In Rockaway, writer/director John J. Budion tries his hand at navigating this treacherous narrative path by telling the story of a pair of brothers growing up in a working-class household with an abusive father. The brothers manage to find refuge, friendship, and a strong moral compass in the company of other misfits boys on the local baseball diamond. Taking cues from Stand By Me (referenced several times in this picture), the director in large part succeeds in weaving a strong and genuinely moving narrative.
“…a pair of brothers growing up in a working-class household with an abusive father.”
A title card announces that what we are about to watch was “Inspired by true events.” The scene is East Rockaway, Long Island in 1994 and brothers Anthony (an excellent Keidrich Sellati) and New York Knicks superfan Jon (Maxwell Apple) live in a modest home with their working mom (Marjan Neshat) and the seething rage that is their emotionally stunted father (Wass Stevens). Prone to fits of alcohol-induced rage and self-loathing, Dad lashes out at his family, beating his wife and children. As is often the case in families that have experienced familial trauma, the boys are both bound closely together and distrustful of others. On the cusp of manhood, Anthony vows to protect his younger brother from his father. “But who will protect you,” asked Jon.
On a local basketball court, the brothers encounter a group of neighborhood kids — handsome leader Brian (Harrison Wittmeyer in a restrained and beautiful performance), brainy Billy (Tanner Flood), obnoxious wanna-be Italian stallion Sal (Colin Critchley), and the portly, wiseass Dom (James DiGiacomo). After a game of pick-up, in which there is refreshingly little teasing/bullying, the bonds of friendship among this group of strays are quickly established and soon grow stronger. It all culminates when this rag-tag group of townies — in their mismatched shirts and crappy equipment — take on an and vanquish, Bad News Bears-stye, an opposing team of preps, led (of course) by creepo Bradley.
“Amidst all the goofing around, sophomoric teen humor, and associated hijinks, the director intersperses some genuinely moving set pieces…”
Amidst all the goofing around, sophomoric teen humor, and associated hijinks, the director intersperses some genuinely moving set pieces: the friends talk Anthony and Jon out of a mad scheme to kill their father in a planned “accident.” The brother’s mom suffers multiple batterings, all the while trying to find an escape for her children. And, most powerfully, Brian confronts an angry, wounded Anthony who lashes then out at his new friend. “Show me how tough you are. Just like your dad,” says a bloodied Brian. This latter scene alone is a star-making turn for Harrison Wittmeyer and is the emotional highpoint of the film. When the inevitable confrontation between Anthony and his father, quietly telegraphed to the attentive viewer earlier in the film, finally occurs, it’s played straight. Here again, props are given to the Keidrich Sellati Wass Stevens for doing the heavy lifting, elevating a tricky scene which could easily have gone south; instead imbuing it with a powerful and moving verisimilitude.
The director does make a few missteps to be sure. The boy’s young crush, Gina, is given little to work with. And a bit more subtly could have been employed in some of the performances (ahem, Sal). But these are minor quibbles as Rockaway takes on, and a large part successfully addresses some very serious, very adult themes: abuse and its legacy for future generations, familial protection, and preservation, loss and redemption — all with a strong measure of grace and empathy.
Rockaway (2018) Written and directed by John J. Budion. Starring Keidrich Sellati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, Harrison Wittmeyer, Marjan Neshat, Wass Stevens.
7 out of 10 stars