A solidly crafted family film from director Bob Swaim, “The Climb” is an engaging tale of growing up in the 1950s in which both a father and his pint-size son get to prove their bravery. Shot in New Zealand, with Auckland locations standing in for Baltimore County, this handsome production may have a tough time breaking in on the theatrical loop given its rather old-fashioned, wholesome feel, but TV and kidpic forums should provide a home.
Bullied by the neighborhood kids and humiliated by his father’s reputation as a coward after not having served in the war, 12-year-old Danny (Gregory Smith) is determined to conquer the town’s local Everest. This is a 203-foot radio tower that is due to be demolished following a series of accidents involving kids who have attempted the climb. He finds an unlikely ally in his ill-tempered , hard-drinking neighbor Mr. Langer (John Hurt).
Slowly wasting away from lung cancer and wishing instead for a quick, dignified death, Langer attempts to convince Danny to bring him a gun to speed up the process. But the boy’s Catholic conscience forbids him from assisting the man. Instead, he gradually forms a bond with the sick but spirited old neighbor. Summoning what little energy he has left, Langer accompanies the boy to the tower, where he helps him construct a dangerous pulley system with ropes, rocks and a parachute harness.
Danny gets closer to the top of the tower than his more robust adversaries, but the pulley mechanism falters. His widowed father, Earl (David Strathairn), is forced to come to the rescue, redeeming himself in his son’s eyes. Earl’s self-esteem and stock with the neighbors also undergo a boost when he confesses the real reason for his exclusion from the army and confronts an embittered warmonger (Stephen McHattie) who has made it his mission to bully him.
The adult conflicts are perhaps less engrossing than Danny’s quest and his friendship with the colorful Langer, but the drama functions well enough in showing the importance of courage and compassion to both generations. Gentle humor also surfaces from time to time. While his accent is somewhat erratic, Hurt succeeds in revealing the good-hearted generosity beneath Langer’s gruff, experience-worn exterior. Smith is plucky and appealing, and Strathairn creates sympathy for a character written without much edge.