Joey Justin Isfeld Book Max Goldblatt Mouth Chauncey Leopardi Hayes Jordan Brower Book’s Dad Gary Busey Joey’s Mom Kirstie Alley Joey’s Dad Matt McCoy Dale Mark Paul Gosselaar Book’s Mom Lisa Eichorn
Sticks and Stones” is a modern coming-of-age story that will invite comparisons with “Stand by Me.” The nice thing for writer and debuting director Neil Tolkin is that his picture can stand the comparison. In terms of story, character and, especially, the young actors in the lead roles, this is a solid effort that would nonetheless require very special handling to crack the theatrical marketplace.
Joey (Justin Isfeld) is an ace 13-year-old pitcher with dreams of the big leagues, fed by pals Book (Max Goldblatt), who hopes to be his catcher, and Mouth (Chauncey Leopardi), who plans to be his agent. It’s a relatively idyllic existence, but real problems soon surface.
Joey has to deal with an abusive brother (Mark Paul Gosselaar) and two well-meaning but largely absent parents (Kirstie Alley, Matt McCoy). Book and Mouth’s parents are absent in different ways, particularly Book’s father (Gary Busey), who thinks he can solve his son’s problems by strength of will.
The problem the friends share is that they have caught the eye of the school bully, Hayes (Jordan Brower). In increasingly savage acts, he makes life a living hell for them. In one instance he grabs Book from the school shower, throws him out in the hallway and pulls the fire alarm.
With adult authority unable or unwilling to do much about Hayes, the three friends decide to take matters into their own hands, using a gun Mouth has obtained. The inevitable showdown proves to be a life-changing event. The resolution, though perhaps a tad schematic, is emotionally satisfying.
What Tolkin has going for him is a script with believable kids and the good fortune to get young actors who can convincingly play the range of emotions the story requires. The characters are occasionally a bit more perceptive than real kids might be, but the actors make the situation believable. Brief appearances by Alley, McCoy, Busey and Lisa Eichorn convey the attitude of middle-class parents who think they can drop in on their kids’ world, solve the problem at hand and then return to their adult lives.
Tech credits are solid, with d.p. Avi Karpick capturing the essentially comfortable nature of the California suburban lifestyle without turning it into a quest for product placement or undercutting the seriousness of the kids’ dilemma.