Ah, the summer days of youth. Riding bikes, eating snowcones, lusting after pre-pubescent classmates whose favorite colors are pink. This is the sky-is-blue, grass-is-green world in which twelve-year old Toby Wilson (Jonathan Lipnicki) and his best friend Cal McKnight (Cody Linley) live. Yet, for Toby, this summer spent growing up in the small town of Granger, Texas will be a summer like no other that’s come before.
As usual, women cause most of the initial changes. First, the bad news is that Toby’s mom (Jane Krakowski), tired of her humdrum existence and marriage to Toby’s postal service employee dad Otto, (Eric Stoltz), sets out for Nashville and a Country Music Television competition in Nashville…and never returns. The good news is that Scarlett Staling (Amanda Alch), the aforementioned pink loving object of Toby’s affections, has broken up with her fifteen-year old boyfriend and has actually started noticing Toby’s existence.
But there are even, um, bigger changes coming for these fine denizens of Granger when a strange carnival barker pulls into town hauling a trailer that he claims holds Zachary Beaver (Sasha Neulinger), the world’s fattest boy. He’d get no argument from Toby or Cal who pay their cash to view the enormous attraction as he sits, bored and playing a video game. Eventually, the boys form the beginnings of an unlikely friendship when Zachary’s partner has to leave him behind for a few days, but the summer of change has one final tragic curveball in store for Toby and his friends.
It would be very easy and not entirely inaccurate to simply make the obligatory and obvious, if favorable, comparisons between “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” and “Stand By Me” and leave it at that. Yet to do so would be to overlook the subtly positive way in which this film deals with outsiders –particularly outsiders who don’t look like the rest of us — and the positive message this will subliminally send to the young viewers who are this film’s target audience. This is a theme that’s not really explored in “Stand By Me.” And besides, today’s kids aren’t likely going to want to watch one of our generation’s coming of age movies, particularly since “Stand…” was a nostalgia piece to start with. (Ironically, this film, adapted from the book by Kimberly Willis Holt, was originally set in the 1970s before being updated by director John Schultz. I guess we won’t get any original material about growing up in this millennium until today’s kids turn forty…)
In any event, “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” is a funny and touching film, even if it errs a little bit on the Hallmark greeting card side. And yes, in the end, it’s an excellent coming of age story for today’s kids and their parents as well.