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Coming of age stories depend upon authenticity if they are to have any power whatsoever. I've certainly seen enough phony versions of a young man's first steps into a larger world to know when something rings true and when it doesn't. The strength of "Funeral Kings," the debut feature of Kevin and Matthew McManus, is that it evokes a sustained emotional state that perfectly captures life at a certain age, straining against everyone else's definition of you, in a way that suggests these are filmmakers worth watching.
Charlie (Alex Maizus) and Andy (Dylan Hartigan) and Felix (Charles Kwame Odei) are friends, all going to the same Catholic middle school. They're good kids, altar boys, but at 14, they're ready to be 30 years old, and they're pushing it in every way they can. From the rowdy energy of the opening title sequence to the defiant smile that lights up the final frames, "Funeral Kings" is confident and controlled and, with an unabashed vulgarity underscoring everything, about as pure a piece of movie memory as I can name. It's just one random week in the lives of these kids, and what happens when Bobby (Brandon Waltz) drops off a padlocked trunk with Andy to hide and a new kid named David (Jordan Puzzo) moves to town. Each of them seems to be just on the verge of really figuring out who they are, and it's not easy for them. Felix is lucky… he's got an older brother, and he's pretty much ready to make the jump to manhood with someone watching him every step of the way. The other guys don't really have that, and they're floundering. Charlie in particular seems to be cursed with a baby face and a hair-trigger temper. He gets embarrassed easily, and he reacts badly when he does.
David seems like the most boring kid in the world at first, but that's because none of them are old enough to have seen the R-rated movie that he appeared in the year before. Once they realize that he was in a real movie… well, they don't really do anything differently at all. They still sort of rough him up and treat him like crap. It's a hazing of sorts until they get to know what David is or isn't capable of, and at the same time, their friendships are being tested by the way they each navigate the minefield of daily morality that middle school represents.
Beautifully photographed and with a song score that makes fantastic use of hip-hop, the film gets its title from a scam that they've figured out, in which every time there's a funeral at their church, they work the service, and then they skip out and don't have to go back to school. It's these little gulps of freedom that are where they're first exploring the idea of adulthood. Cigarettes. Stolen communion wine. And eventually, inevitably, a gun. These are the totems that carry them into adulthood over the course of the film, and it's expertly charted material, if somewhat familiar. I love the casual profanity, the moments where they make bad decisions, and the real sense that adults have started to disappear from their lives. They've entered that moment where they're invisible until they're in trouble, and they're determined to skate right up to the line, just to see where it is.
Alex Maizus plays Charlie, and the kid's amazing. The entire young cast is solid, but Maizus has this unruly inner life that the McManus twins have captured to impressive effect here. He's so angry, so ready to be taken seriously, so young in so many ways. It's really not a complicated storyline, but the writer/directors are good at milking suspense all the way up to the very last shot of a reveal. They introduce that gun early on, and there's no way to hear that title and see that gun and see them treating funeral mass like a free pass to playing hooky, and you know something awful has to happen to them. Whatever ends up happening, it's very honest in the way it happens, and I think a smart distributor could turn this into a small-scale success. It resonates. It feels right. It is no small accomplishment.
"Funeral Kings" deserves to open someday in a theater near you.
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