San Francisco Examiner
a long climb for a deserving adolescent drama
WITH A SETTING and atmosphere seemingly ripped out of the pages of Boy’s Life magazine, “The Climb” is the kind of movie that isn’t made much anymore – a family film in the truest sense of the word.
That means it’s just as enjoyable to adults as it is inspiring to teens and preteens, and when’s the last time you’ve seen a film like that?
Incidentally, something’s wrong in the movie business when a studio-produced idiotic film like last year’s “Wild America”, which has the same target audience, can become a minor hit, yet “The Climb” – which played successfully at the 1997 Mill Valley Film Festival – has had to scratch for a distribution deal.
Set in 1959 Baltimore, it’s about young boy, Danny (Gregory Smith), whose dream of scaling a massive radio tower before it is torn down becomes the major obsession of his life. Climbing the tower will a) prove his fearlessness to a gang of bullies; b) make him better than his father, Earl (David Strathairn), who is considered a coward in the neighborhood because he did not fight in either Korea or World War II; and c) assert his superiority to his smug and scholarly sister Leslie (Bay Area native Marla Sokoloff, the secretary on the television series “The Practice.”).
Trouble is, Danny breaks his arm – in typical young adventurous boys’ fashion, he does it trying to climb onto of his roof of his house.
It doesn’t look like he’s going to be able to conquer the tower before its demise, and to make matters worse, he’s also been saddled with the after-school task of caring for a dying neighbor. Chuck (John Hurt, who has fun with his gruff performance) has lung cancer, and wants nothing better than to drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes until his day of reckoning arrives.
What’s a boy to do?
Turns out that old curmudgeon Chuck, who beguiles the boy about his days as a civil engineer (building roads and bridges in such exotic, un-Baltimore-like places as Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, tamping “virgin jungle”), has an idea or two about how to get up there.
“The Climb” was expertly written by Vince McKewin, who certainly has to be considered one of the best writers of family movies going – he also wrote “Fly Away Home.” McKewin takes young adults seriously; while he can present adolescent goals and longing in their proper, sometimes amusing perspective – as when Danny accidentally sees a neighbor woman undressing – he doesn’t question the honesty of the feelings or their importance.
And there’s a lot more to it than just Danny’s side of things. Much time is spent on Earl’s clashes with his neighbor, a gung-ho war veteran (Stephen McHattie) who endangers his fellow residents by randomly firing guns while rip-roaring drunk, and the social interaction of the adults on the street.
In style and spirit – though the execution is different – “The Climb”, actually filmed (believe it or not) in New Zealand and directed by Bob Swaim, has pleasant echoes of “Stand By Me”. It’s properly nostalgic, beautifully made, and has a little something for everyone.
Sokoloff, McKewin and producers Mark and Pamela Edwards McClafferty will appear in person at Saturday’s 7:50 p.m. show at the Four Star to answer audience questions.