“Boys,” the film that wants to make a man of Lukas Haas, is beset by growing pains, and not all of them belong to the gawky young actor. Stretched from a short story called “Twenty Minutes,” this flat, oddly paced mystery/coming-of-age drama might have been better served sticking to that time length. As it is, “Boys,” pairing Haas with “older woman” Winona Ryder, is as vague and unfocused as its title, and Stacy Cochran’s direction promises far more than her script delivers. Payoff at the box office could be as shaky as the one in the film, although the Haas-Ryder duo might attract some initial interest among teens.
Cochran, who scored some attention when her low-budget “My New Gun” premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, starts with a mildly evocative premise. Haas plays John Baker Jr., a high school senior in a not-terribly-exclusive New England boys school, bored with classes and dorky friends yet dreading the corporate life that looms ahead.
A jolt of excitement arrives in the beautiful, if semiconscious, form of Ryder’s Patty Vare, a mysterious, sophisticated 25-year-old found helpless after being thrown from her horse near the school grounds. Clearly in need of medical attention, Patty refuses to see a doctor — this is a woman with a secret — so Baker does what any hormonal kid would do: He spirits the young woman away to his dorm room, falling headlong into love and intrigue faster than you can say “Holden Caulfield meets the Hardy Boys.”
What the audience knows (through flashbacks) but Baker doesn’t is that Patty is somehow involved in the mysterious disappearance of a famous baseball pitcher named Bud Valentine (Skeet Ulrich). “Boys” essentially runs on two courses, with Patty’s mystery storyline considerably more intriguing — at least until its anticlimactic climax — than Baker’s run-ins with school officials, parents and nosy classmates. Unfortunately, film spends the bulk of its first reel focusing on the moony-eyed boy’s attempts to keep his mystery girl hidden. The director tries hard to convince that the dorm-room intrigue is perilous, or even serious, but audiences won’t be fooled. This is the stuff of teen comedy, played straight.
As a scripter, Cochran is more interested in (and a bit more successful at) character study than plot mechanics, but doesn’t provide the telling detail to accomplish either effectively. Haas’ deadpan delivery only accentuates his character’s blankness.
Ryder, meanwhile, is saddled with the knowledge that the baggage her character lugs is empty. There are hints that Patty is something of a bad-girl-about-town, but the film cops out on this angle, and it’s a crucial lapse.
Rest of the cast is a mixed bag, with young Charlie Hofheimer the standout among the schoolboy actors. Ulrich, as the ill-fated pitcher, makes an impression somewhat less substantial than his rising-star hype, while James LeGros must have taken his insignificant walk-on role as a favor to Cochran (the actor appeared in “My New Gun” in leaner times). Chris Cooper is sufficiently nasty as Baker’s strict father, while Jessica Harper is wasted as the boy’s ever-suffering mother.
Despite some pretty, New England autumn scenery, “Boys” has a gloomy look that won’t win over young ticket-buyers (although Stewart Copeland’s rock soundtrack might). The producers clearly want the PG-13 audience, with one scene’s dialogue so obviously overdubbed it must be the result of last-minute obscenity deletions. Another bit of sloppiness: During one of the various soft-drink placements, a can of Mello Yello shifts position from cut to cut. Audiences might well find that little mystery more intriguing than any other “Boys” has to offer.