In the vast field of boyish endeavor, especially on film, go-kart racing does not come immediately to mind, at least in the post-Lil’ Rascals era. “Kart Racer,” about semi-pro four-wheeling for kids, is less Mack Sennett than Tony Robbins, as its drama is mostly of the motivational-training variety. Sober-sided mien and slim marquee power make a tough sell. But there’s a surprising buoyant and affecting father-son saga beneath the formula, and this could translate to durable vid sales for families wanting smarter stuff for older kids.
Tale is not without its comic qualities, although these are not especially evident in its by-the-numbers opening sequence. Ballsy loser Watts Davies (Will Rothhaar from “Hearts in Atlantis” who’s growing into an appealing introspective leading man) is a working-class townie in upstate New York with an inclination to enter foolhardy competitions with rich kid Rodney Wells (Joe Dinicol), who has all the best toys.
Ever since Watts’ mother died of cancer, his mechanic dad (Randy Quaid, in a highly effective straight role) hasn’t talked to him. That’s a double drag because dad, called Victor (as in not-loser), is a former national go-kart champ in a position to help his son get into an upcoming regional race. (The pic is set in rural Lackawanna, but was actually shot in Quebec.)
First, the lad has to have a vehicle and, with no soapboxes in sight, he sets out to raise money to buy one — a plan thwarted by bullies led, again, by the local oligarch, junior.
With a little prompting from the comely deputy sheriff (Jennifer Wigmore) who keeps pulling Watts out of low-key mischief, Vic finally figures out that he’s got to bury the past and help his son. The dialogue is pure boilerplate throughout, but Alberta-born director Stuart Gillard, who has mostly directed episodic television, seems genuinely interested in the literal nuts and bolts of building a go-kart from scratch, and scrap, and in learning how to navigate it over tricky terrain.
Some of the comic relief, with Harland Williams as a burned-out arcade owner, feels tacked on. A subplot with Watts having a first romance with a nose-ringed, graffiti-prone pixie (Amanda De Martinis), while sketchy, lends the tale another lift. And Rothaar has an unforced, brooding quality that gives it grit — a quality supported by Thom Burstyn’s color-desaturated lensing.
The end is a foregone conclusion, but it earns its cheers with considerable heart and much-above-genre acting.