Mel Gibson’s directing debut reinforces his status as a genuinely fine actor, a fact often lost amid the explosions and car crashes in the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max trilogies. This simple, sappy film lacks those flashy trappings but compensates with ample heart.
The action begins with a Cinderella-type setup: 12-year-old Chuck (fine newcomer Nick Stahl) lives in a Maine coastal village with his uninterested, often-married mother (Margaret Whitton) and two difficult half-sisters. Chuck dreams of getting into his late father’s old military academy but has already failed the entrace exam. Needing a tutor, he enlists the aid of Mr McLeod (Gibson), a gruff, mysterious recluse whose teaching career was ended by an accident that scarred him and took the life of one of his students. Script [from the novel by Isabelle Holland] comes off a bit sitcom-ish in the early going. Still, the words become more compelling as the action moves along, with Chuck finding a mentor and father figure while McLeod rekindles his contact with the outside world.
In addition to the charm of the two main characters, the movie manages to glorify education without being heavy-handed and provides a wry take on the more ‘groovy’ aspects of the late 1960s, when the action takes place.