The Hollywood Reporter
Thursday, February 12, 1998
MIAMI – Set it a Baltimore suburb in 1959, Bob Swaim’s “The Climb” gives the usual, nostalgic coming of age story a bit of edge.
The tale of a 12-year-old who comes to a new understanding of life via his experience of caring for a bitter neighbor dying of cancer, the film contains many heavy-handed, familiar elements but benefits greatly from finely textured performances by John Hurt, David Strathairn and Gregory Smith as the young boy. The French-New Zealand co-production was showcased recently at the 15th Miami Film Festival.
Danny (Smith), who spends much of his time avoiding neighborhood bullies, lives with his widower father (Strathairn) and Shakespeare-quoting sister, next door to the house in which Langer (Hurt) is preparing to die.
More than preparing, in fact; he’s downright eager, so much so that when Danny’s archery arrows accidentally fly into his bedroom, Langer stands by the window so they’ll have a better chance of striking him. As punishment for a near-miss, Danny is ordered to spend time attending to Langer, whose primary interest is having Danny procure him cigarettes and whiskey.
Danny’s father, meanwhile, has his own problems, including an aggressively horny neighbor and another who is near-psychotic World War II vet and accuses Danny’s father of being a coward because he didn’t serve in the military. The vet also has a disturbing habit of drunkenly firing his rifle on his front lawn at night.
Danny and Langer develop a close relationship, and soon Danny is wheeling the invalid around the neighborhood in his wagon. When Danny develops a desire to climb the nearby radio tower, Langer helps him devise a system of weights and pulleys to help do it. The eventual attempt, in which Danny predictably runs into trouble, helps him realize the true extent of his father’s courage.
Vince McKewin’s screenplay plays much like the 1950s family sitcom, with addition of then-for-bidden topics such as adultery, attempted suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. Though its frequent lurches into melodrama are dismayingly predictable, the film benefits from well developed characterizations and incisive dialogue.
As underplayed by ever-reliable Strathairn, Danny’s sensitive father is a quietly compelling character, while Hurt pulls out all the stops and delivers a highly entertaining turn as the colorful Langer, who regales his young charge with stories of his carousing. And Smith’s Danny is the rare screen adolescent who is both credible and interesting.