By Mark Bell | March 10, 2012

Troy (Jacob Wysocki) is like most teenage boys. He fantasies about the girls in his classes, online games with his friends and generally just tries to not stand out too much. Which would be fine, except he does stand out, because he’s got the distinctive form of someone who is dancing with the words “morbidly obese.”

His father (Billy Campbell) and younger brother (Dylan Arnold) are fit, though, and they seem to be trying to turn his health around. Dad comes on a bit too strong, however, and Jacob finds himself in his own head, trying to handle things his own way… which he has decided means that he should step in front of a bus and end his life.

His suicide attempt fails, however, when he is saved by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a recently expelled student from school, known for being the unpredictable, self-destructive lead singer of a punk band. For some reason, Marcus attaches himself to Jacob (maybe it’s because Jacob has money, food and shelter that he’s willing to share with Marcus; Marcus is on the outs with his family and pretty much homeless). When Marcus suggest that the two start a new band together, their friendship is cemented, even if Jacob has no idea how to play the drums.

This film creeps up on you, both as you’re watching it and long after when, if you’re me, you sit down and try to put into words the subtle way the film carried you along. I honestly want to watch it again, because while I may have instinctively grasped and appreciated the sentiment and tone throughout, I want to re-visit exactly how the film pulled it off. Why did I connect with it, both during the initial watch and even more so hours after the screening?

Fat Kid Rules the World has a refreshingly distinct visual style. Unlike many films, where light floods the screen and images are given a well-lit, sometimes flat, base to work with, filmmaker Matthew Lillard’s debut feature instead revels in the depths of the shadows created when you go for a more natural light feel. A simple shot of Troy on his bed, for example, is given so much more weight (no pun intended) when the shadows are allowed to define his countenance. It also gels with that punk aesthetic that the film is trying to instill in its main character.

Still, the artistic choices from the cinematography side of things only go so far, and overall this is a film that lives and dies by the performances contained within and not a single actor drops the ball, or even stumbles, in the entire film. And I’m not just talking about the leads, even the minor roles are given moments where the actors have an opportunity to add just a little bit more to the film, and they all embrace the challenge wholeheartedly.

Jacob Wysocki delivers an impressive character transformation from an almost insufferable sad sack to a powerhouse capable, and confident, enough to indeed rule his own world. Matt O’Leary’s Marcus somehow charms you back again and again, even as he repeats the same mistakes, and Billy Campbell elevates a role that I was convinced was going to be just another well-meaning, but entirely too strict and out-of-touch, father figure to rebel against. In the end, even when things take a stroll down the familiar, there’s just something stronger about the film that keeps it from becoming forgettable.

Fat Kid Rules the World is a powerful filmmaking debut for Matthew Lillard, and you never get that throwaway feeling, like’s he’s just falling into the old “but what I’d really like to do is direct” stereotype. There’s passion here, there’s craft and it all comes to together. This is a quality film by a strong independent filmmaking voice.

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