Happy Birthday, Richie. The 18-year-old orphan has aged-out of foster care — “emancipated,” a counselor insists — and is now suddenly responsible for his food, cash and future. The opening scenes of writer-director A.J. Edwards’ “Friday’s Child” are a montage of group-home motivational lectures that Richie attends dutifully, intercut with docudrama-style footage of kids leaning into the lens to tell their lineage of poverty and addiction. They’re actors pretending to be abandoned children, but they’re convincing, and so is the first half of Edwards’ portrait of a boy born to fail, until the film gets bored with neorealism and airlifts in its third act from a two-bit soap opera. The abrupt veer from verite to melodrama seems to imply that kids like Richie (played by Tye Sheridan) don’t have it bad enough without a script twisting the screws. Still, despite its climactic eye-rolls, “Friday’s Child” is a great showcase for Sheridan, the versatile young indie star about to break into the mainstream in “Ready Player One.”
Sheridan’s a phenomenal physical actor, perfect for playing kids who don’t talk much because they’re shy or dumb. Here, his Richie is a bit of both. He’s a focused listener and a shallow thinker, and when another unseen advisor urges him to get a GED, Richie’s face ripples with reactions that don’t seem to penetrate to the brainstem. Sheridan grew up not far from where we first see Richie walking to his final temporary home in Killeen, Texas. He has a rough-and-tumble, puppyish stride. Later, when his character nervously wonders what to do in an older woman’s house, his shoulders wobble side-to-side like a tail.
For now, he looks like an ordinary kid sneaking home just before dawn, and the piped-in owls add a small-town calm. But it’s clear that Richie is roiling with unease. He dodges his foster caretaker, refuses to admit where he spent the night, robs a gym locker and fights a classmate. These scenes feel like a farewell to childhood. Soon, none of these people will have power over him. He’s quitting school, shunning graduation and getting out of there to earn a living like an adult. An education, he says, will just slow him down. He thinks he can make it, and his counselors cheer him on with generic platitudes about dignity and self-esteem. Still, on a background TV, there’s a glimpse of an older blond kid who might be one of Richie’s inspirational gurus, arrested again.
Edwards’ camera speeds down the Texas highways with the urgency of needing to get somewhere. The destination doesn’t matter, though it turns out it should. Richie’s too broke to afford anything better than a slum apartment only one step above homelessness, in a complex run by a nickel-and-diming manager (Brett Butler) who a kid named Swim (Caleb Landry Jones) warns him to watch out for. Swim literally slides into the movie with a dancer’s swing around the back rows of a bus shuttling Richie to his night shift at a construction yard. He’s drunk or high; it doesn’t really matter which. But he’s clearly trouble.
Next to Swim’s destructive energy, Richie looks stable. Edwards hints that Swim might have started ruining Richie’s life before they even met. After all, someone already bashed in Richie’s front door, and together, the pair make life even worse for poor folks like them. Soon, a detective (Jeffrey Wright) is on their tail. They also have some lovely adventures, like a wasted road-trip to a squatter’s house where a girl ballet dances in an abandoned living room, and Richie and Swim spin in circles in a room full of ripped-up books. Beauty exists if they know where to look.
But ultimately, “Friday’s Child” is about a boy who’s never shared his life with anyone, not his best frenemy, and likely not a rich girl named Joan (Imogen Poots) who invites him home but seals off her own problems. Richie and Joan randomly meet on the street and say goodbye, expecting not to see each other again. Until Joan’s second appearance, “Friday’s Child” feels so loose that characters could disappear without affecting the plot. Their romance flogs the movie toward a series of implausible coincidences that stall out in a final stretch that’s just a mashup of pretty nature photography, indulgent saxophone solos, strobe lights, sobbing and the sense that Edwards expects emotions out of this nonverbal dazzle. Yet none of these shots linger — unlike an image of Richie at work next to a crushing machine: As the gears flatten cardboard boxes, “Friday’s Child” recalls kids like Richie himself, fragile objects who lack the support to withstand relentless pressure.