Affecting performances and effective storytelling are the hallmarks of “Fat Kid Rules the World,” actor Matthew Lillard’s debut effort as a feature director. Commercial prospects are difficult to gauge — though the pic’s audience award in the Narrative Spotlight division at the recent SXSW Film Festival can’t hurt. A sharp distrib also could elevate the pic’s profile by generating media interest in well-cast up-and-comers Jacob Wysocki (“Terri”) and Matt O’Leary (“Natural Selection”).

Overweight and suicidal, misfit high-schooler Troy (Wysocki) is ready to throw himself in front of a bus when he’s impulsively saved by Marcus (O’Leary), a mood-swinging dropout who can be quite ingratiating when drugs aren’t completely messing up his mind.

Working from scripters Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman’s adaptation of K.L. Going’s young-adult novel, Lillard — who likely could have played Marcus himself a decade or so ago — builds dramatic tension by keeping the aud guessing: Is Marcus cavalierly exploiting Troy’s emotional neediness, or simply being as sincere as the drugs allow him to be when he encourages Troy to become a drummer and join him as part of a new punk rock duo.

Here and there, Lillard springs an occasional gotcha — depicting a dramatic event that turns out to merely be someone’s worst-case scenario — that recalls similar tricks pulled on auds by French auteur Claude Lelouch.

Wysocki manages to retain some shred of dignity even during Troy’s most humiliating moments, which serves to strengthen his hold on aud sympathy, while O’Leary fearlessly goes to extremes in ways that will seem unbelievable only to those who have never known anyone as dangerously charismatic as Marcus.

Billy Campbell makes his every onscreen moment count by effortlessly conveying even-handed authority as Troy’s straight-arrow but unexpectedly sympathetic father. Other standout supporting players include Lili Simmons as a classmate who befriends Troy partly because of her own feelings of inadequacy, and Dylan Arnold as Dayle, Troy’s younger, more athletic but equally insecure brother.

Pic boasts fine production values on a budget, including Noah M. Rosenthal’s sharp lensing of Seattle locations.

Fat Kid Rules the World

  • Production: A Whitewater Films production in association with Whippany Park Prods. and Buffalo Bulldog Films. Produced by Rick Rosenthal, Nick Morton, Matthew Lillard, Jane Charles, Jennifer Maas, Evan Hoyt Wasserstrom, Talan C. Torriero. Co-producers, Michael M.B. Glavin, Peter Speakman, Trent Broin, Ryan Lewis. Directed by Matthew Lillard. Screenplay, Michael M.B. Galvin, Peter Speakman, based on the novel by K.L. Going.
  • Crew: Camera (HD, color), Noah M. Rosenthal; editor, Michelle M. Witten; music, Mike McCready; music supervisor, Sandy Wilson; production designer, Tania Kupczak; sound, Kelsey Wood; assistant director, Allison Eckert. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 14, 2012. Running time: 94 MIN.
  • With: With: Jacob Wysocki, Matt O'Leary, Lili Simmons, Dylan Arnold, Billy Campbell.