Within the first fifteen minutes of the film The Boys Are Back, sports journalist Joe Warr (Clive Owen) watches his wife, Katy, succumb to cancer in a series of heartbreaking scenes. Joe, a man who is rarely home as he is often flying off to big sporting events, suddenly finds himself raising his 6-year-old son, Artie (newcomer Nicholas McNaulty), by himself on their vast, Australian ranch. Struggling to cope and to somehow be understanding of Artie’s grief, Joe decides that instead of imposing rules on his son, he’ll let the boy do as he pleases. He believes that this will help the child deal with his mother’s death. What was once an organized and well kept home turns into something akin to a frat house. Just as Joe feels like he may be getting a handle on things, he receives an unexpected call from his estranged son, Harry (George McKay), living in England with Joe’s first wife. Harry asks to come live with Joe and Artie, and Joe immediately agrees. The three of them learn to become a family and Joe ultimately learns to be a better father as the movie drives to an effective climax.
It’s obvious from the get-go that Joe is no saint. He works to hard and is absent from Artie’s life due to his job. Furthermore, as later revealed, Joe cheated on Harry’s mom with Mia, resulting in an unplanned pregnancy (i.e. Artie). But in no way is he distant or cold toward his boys. In fact, Joe loves Artie so much (and Harry, too), that at no point did I feel that it was a nuisance to care for his child. His love ran that deep. In truth, the nuisance in his life is actually what he once loved: work. The moment Mia died, Joe’s parental instincts kick in and he realizes what was important. Clive Owen, a fine dramatic actor who seems to have been pigeonholed into thrillers as of late, nails all of the right highs and lows of Joe’s character.
Owen has a real knack for playing it cool while expressing so much emotion in his eyes and the way he carries his body. Furthermore, the vulnerability he allows Joe to expose make you pull for this character, despite his flaws. Owen creates a realistic paternal bond with the two fine actors playing his sons and the three actors are quite believable as a family. As Artie, Nicholas McNaulty is a real treat. His performance is so free spirited and natural, I sometimes wondered if he was acting or just told to run free in front of the camera. Likewise, George McKay is exceptional as the unsure and shy Harry. Whereas some teen actors would have stressed the bitterness in Harry’s character, McKay delivers a well rounded performance that is both heartbreaking and inspiring.
The Boys Are Back was directed by Scott Hicks, whose eclectic career includes the Academy Award nominated Shine and the overlooked romantic drama No Reservations. Hicks does a fine job of keeping the story moving along nicely and creating a wonderful palette of colors and images to watch. He utilizes the wonderful Australian countryside for some beautiful cinematography and incorporates those splendid shots into the story.
While the script contains some conventional plot points (Joe often has conversations with his dead wife; Joe makes one big error that nearly drives Harry away forever; Joe is at odds with his mother-in-law over how to raise Artie in light of Mia’s death), Hicks direction and editing choices kept the film feeling fresh. What I found most refreshing about this film was Joe’s dedication to his boys, despite not really knowing them. Whereas a lesser film would have Joe being cold and distant and slowly getting to know his boys, Owen’s Joe obviously loves his boys to death and wants what’s best for them. His methods are unconventional and don’t always succeed, but his intentions are good and watching find his way into being good father make him, and this movie, one to root for.