Most movies about young teens get it wrong. Adolescence is a war zone where levels of cruelty are boundless and where most people are physically and psychologically ill-prepared to cope with the brutality, whether it comes from peers or adults. “The Mighty,” based on the kid-lit fave “Freak the Mighty,” is an exception. It “gets” the milieu, and the saga soars as the filmmakers inventively visualize the aspirations of its two young outcasts. A deft work of sleight-of-hand that translates across generations, the pic has the potential to be a breakout success when it’s released in the fall. Ancillary action also looks upbeat, particularly in videocassette, where such fare has been consistently strong.
While the pic’s core appeal is decidedly to young viewers, the material hits an emotional chord for all ages. The vigor of the story lies in its delineation of the friendship that bonds two misfits. Max (Elden Henson), the narrator, gives the outward impression of a slow-moving, dimwitted blob. In reality, it’s the defensive stance he’s taken against a world that has already inflicted a lot of emotional pain.
In his intro to the tale, Max explains that Freakchanged his life. Freak turns out to be Kevin (Kieran Culkin), a physically deformed youngster who moves in next door. Despite having a progressive degenerative condition called Morquio’s Syndrome, Kevin is bright and surprisingly fearless — traits not particularly appreciated by classmates who prefer to prey on weakness and see endless opportunities for playing get-the-geek.
Kevin is assigned as reading tutor to Max, who is virtually illiterate. With a copy of the Arthurian legend, Kevin explains the process of reading and comprehension to his pupil in a way that finally makes sense, and he does it without pulling punches or sparing Max’s feelings. It’s an act of giving that’s important for both, because it works toward their unconscious striving for normalcy.
Separating “The Mighty” from comparable material is its quality of magic realism, which complements often banal situations. For Kevin, the notion of knights and honor has become a guiding influence. The boys’ adventures are quests for latter-day Holy Grails, damsels in distress and the slaying of dragons (or, for the literal-minded, retrieving a lost purse and making a bully back down).
With Kevin sitting on Max’s shoulders, they ward off evildoers, but the imagined knights of yore also turn up on their steeds and are drawn into the story. The connection is effectively accomplished thanks to the elegant direction of Peter Chelsom, with additional nods to pristine camerawork from John de Borman and a lively, evocative score from Trevor Jones.
Woven into the narrative is the story of Max’s father, a convicted felon who escapes and eventually kidnaps his son. In a somewhat melodramatic fashion, that aspect of the tale is intended to identify the demons that have been the roadblocks to the boy’s emotional and intellectual development, but it’s the one minor element, in an otherwise peerless film, that seems somewhat contrived.
Though top-billed, Sharon Stone is a secondary player as Kevin’s mother. It’s a strong, emotional performance that confirms her range.
But this is the boys’ story and the pic’s two leads are extraordinary. Culkin has the showier role but does nothing to overtly invoke sympathy for the boy’s physical condition. It’s a surprisingly modulated performance for someone his age. Henson has the task of embodying someone who appears simple but whose soul has poetry. The latter aspect is effectively conveyed in his narration, which runs through the film.
The support cast is also strong, especially Gena Rowlands and Harry Dean Stanton as Max’s grandparents and guardians. (An early image of the two in an American Gothic pose sets just the right mix of humor, authority and menace.)
A mature work in all respects, “The Mighty” solidifies the promise of Chelsom’s earlier films, “Hear My Song” and “Funnybones.” His offbeat sensibility finds voice in a story that demands extremes of triumph and tragedy. Yet he makes few obvious stops, taking the viewer down a path that’s familiar but marked by an impressive honesty that’s draining, cathartic and satisfying.