With apologies to Tolstoy: Each unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but miserable adolescents do tend to get repetitious. “Measure of a Man” is the latest among too many of what one might term “My Crappy but Formative Teenage Summer Vacation” movies. Worse, it’s a particularly generic one that brings no distinctive personality or plot angles to a very familiar set of misfit-hero woes and eventual, underwhelming triumphs. A first U.S. project for director Jim Loach, the primarily TV-trained son of Brit auteur Ken, this bland flashback lacks the cultural familiarity that boosted his Nottingham-set prior feature “Oranges and Sunshine.”
His voiceover narration just as pedestrian as everything else here, Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper from “The Maze Runner”) recounts how he dreaded his New York family’s summer forays to a lakeside cabin in small-town Rhode Island, where all the available outdoor activities seemed designed to humiliate his athletically challenged, pudgy self. The year is 1976, and while older sister Michelle Marks (Liana Liberato) can’t wait to rejoin one of the local day camps, now as a counselor, Bobby balks at participating at all. This irks his father (Luke Wilson), but then Dad has been irritable about everything since Mom (Judy Greer) discovered Women’s Lib and announced she’d be enrolling in law school. To counter the charge that he’ll simply lay about all summer, Bobby says he’ll find a job — and he actually does: one tending the expansive grounds of a crusty and demanding widower (Donald Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn).
The sole bright spot for our protagonist each year is reuniting with BFF Joanie (Danielle Rose Russell). But she seems to be maturing faster than he, with little interest as before in their palling around. Worse, she soon announces that a mysterious obligation will put her back in the city for most of the season. Bobby is left with little to do but be ordered around by Dr. Kahn, resent his sibling’s secret romance with a handsome jock (Luke Benward), and watch his parents’ marriage fall apart (Dad, too, finds an excuse to spend most of his time back in the city). Meanwhile Bobby is the target of bullying by three townie louts whose malicious Vietnam vet leader, Willie Rumson aka “Rummy” (Beau Knapp), grouses that Bobby has stolen his groundskeeper job.
The various elements offer enough dramatic potential, but neither Loach nor the screenplay by sophomore scribe David Scearce (co-writer with Tom Ford on “A Single Man”) do much to tap it. The colorless, dully unimaginative narrative springs few surprises and provides scant charm or poignancy. Bobby is a somewhat dreary, complaining sad sack eliciting less sympathy than he ought to. Other characters are sketched in terms too one-dimensional to stir much interest, with even Sutherland rote in a stock snooty-old-fusspot role.
The conflicts come to no interesting fruition, and occasional comic flourishes (Bobby dancing to a “Soul Train” broadcast, vomiting after drinking alcohol) fall flat. It’s a testament to how far “Measure” comes up short of even its mild ambitions that when our hero symbolically, climactically breaks free of his inhibitions, he does so by doing something we weren’t particularly aware was a source of fear for him.
The film is based on “My Fat Summer,” a 1977 YA novel by sportswriter Robert Lipsyte. That autobiographically inspired book was set in the 1950s, and in updating it to the Me Decade, “Measure” has a potential source of nostalgic fun it does nothing with beyond a soundtrack full of soft-rock oldies. In real life, Lipsyte’s teenage “lawn boy” job was so labor-intensive he lost 40 pounds, a transformation that might’ve provided considerable dramatic (ahem) weight here. But not only does the film fail to portray that interesting note, it perversely ends on a swim-suited freeze-frame that burns Bobby’s unaltered chubbiness — the source of much of his insecurity — into our memory. If the point is to suggest he’s now content with his lot, that’s yet another thing Loach & Co. don’t manage to push across.
Competent but undistinguished in assembly, “Measure of a Man” features a piano and guitar-based score by Tim Wheeler (of the Irish rock band Ash) and Ilan Eshkeri whose pleasant noodling only underlines the film’s lack of momentum.