War Eagle, Arkansas (2009)

29 Jan

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in "War Eagle, Arkansas."

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Enoch is a talented teenaged baseball player. He pitches strikeouts when he’s not under pressure. However, there are times when he does get under pressure—mostly because of his best friend, nicknamed “Wheels.” The reason Enoch is not popular among his peers is not just because of his stutter that prevents him from letting out a full sentence. It’s also because of his friendship and assistance to Wheels. Wheels is a smart aleck who won’t shut his mouth for even a minute. He also has Cerebral Palsy and is in a wheelchair, hence the nickname. These two share an odd friendship, having grown up together in a small community called War Eagle, in the Ozark Mountains. Enoch can’t talk, but can pitch very well; Wheels can’t walk, but he almost speaks for Enoch at some points—he can’t shut up. These two are the best of friends and they need each other. But Wheels is afraid of dragging Enoch down in the future.

The friendship between Enoch and Wheels is the main element of the independent film “War Eagle, Arkansas.” Theirs is a very refreshing coming-of-age story in that they don’t simply talk to each other about why they’re great friends or why they’re afraid of the future (it also helps that one of them has an uncontrollable stutter—I’m repeating myself, but let the record show that this kid has an even worse stutter than the geeky, stammering high school student who joined the debate team in 2007’s “Rocket Science”). When they get together and Enoch tries to come to Wheels with a problem, Wheels advises him and tries to help him, but not before using his acid tongue to a somewhat cruel outburst, even if some of what he’s saying is the truth.

“War Eagle, Arkansas” is a splendid piece of work. It doesn’t slip into melodramatic elements that would belong in a “movie-of-the-week.” Thankfully, the script by Graham Gordy doesn’t dumb down this coming-of-age story even when Enoch’s grandfather (well-played by Brian Dennehy) gives him multiple lectures about life. There are also nice, realistic supporting characters including Enoch’s mother (Mare Winningham) and Wheels’ mother (Mary Kay Place)—both love their children—and a video store owner named Jack (James McDaniel), who tries to build and open his own church in this small town. And then there’s a nice relationship between Enoch and a girl named Abby (helium-voiced Misti Traya), which has some comic timing in the ways that Enoch tries to use poetry as a pickup line, or when he writes conversations on his forearm to look at and bring up on their date. The relationship between Enoch and Abby almost strains the friendship between Enoch and Wheels when Enoch brings Abby to Wheels’ house. Wheels almost immediately regrets encouraging Enoch to ask Abby out. But he can’t just confront his friend and say how much jealousy contains him, not even when Enoch has a shot at a baseball scholarship for an out-of-state college.

And this friendship is one of the best coming-of-age teenage friendships I’ve seen in a movie. It helps especially that both boys are very well-acted. Enoch is played by Luke Grimes and Wheels is played by Dan McCabe. Both are newcomers, but they live and breathe their characters and do tremendous acting jobs. They play characters with differing personalities that really develop into one personality. The very best parts of the movie are when they’re together.

Also, the setting of the movie (a rural community) really makes you understand why Enoch and Wheels feel confused about their surroundings.

“War Eagle, Arkansas” is well-made with great performances. What I don’t understand is why, according to http://www.rottentomatoes.com, the sole review of this movie is from Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Why is this movie so ignored? People need to see it because this is a terrific coming-of-age drama; one of the best I’ve ever seen.

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