A pastiche of contemporary youth traumas and road movies, “Josh and S.A.M.” rambles along good-naturedly, if rather aimlessly. It twists and turns along the route, too often using gimmickry and jettisoning its reality base. However, by the time it reaches its destination, the film has actually scored enough points to forgive much of its dopiness and its misguided emphasis on the cute and corny.
One senses that writer Frank Deese loved the challenge of taking a stock situation, adding the improbable and spinning it out to its illogical conclusion.
The basic germ of an idea unquestionably infected the film’s producers and first-time helmer Billy Weber. Yet, there’s the overriding feeling that, apart from possibly its creator, no one quite got the point of the tale.
Josh (Jacob Tierney) and Sam (Noah Fleiss) are brothers, 12 and 7 years old respectively, who live with their mother (Joan Allen), who has been largely inattentive to them while focusing on finding a new husband.
Josh has learned to use a quick wit and native intelligence to concoct stories that mask his crippling insecurity. Sam is less fortunate. He is a despondent child prone to bouts of silence and violence.
When the brothers are shipped off to Florida to spend the summer with their dad (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his new family, matters build to a boil. Deeply troubled about his fate, Josh invents a wild
but clever scenario to spur his brother to action. He tells Sam that he is a “strategically altered mutant”– the creation of a government program. Soon his genetically designed superpowers will be used in a secret war about to begin in Africa.
It is a rather slim device to get the youngsters on the road.
The foundation continues to wobble as Josh conjures up another preposterous story at a high school reunion he’s managed to crash. The story convinces one attendee (Chris Penn) that he is Josh’s father. Credulity is strained to the limit when they take the man to Josh’s supposed grandparent’s home and accidentally knock the man unconscious. The brothers believe he’s been killed, so they steal his car and head for Canada, hoping to find the fictional Liberty Maid — another Josh creation — who, alone, can save Sam from being shipped off to war.
Although the film spends a lot of time in the buildup, it slowly begins to redeem itself once it hits the road. The engine behind the kick-start is the introduction of Alison (Martha Plimpton), a hitchhiker who Sam believes to be the Liberty Maid. It is a role she willingly adopts to gain the ride.
The preposterous underpinnings give way to some real emotions as the trio’s interdependence creates a bond both desperate and touching. Their self-serving manipulations ultimately reveal an ingrained humanity that allows the story’s larger concerns to surface.