Revisiting: The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

30 Apr

By Tanner Smith

The Battle of Shaker Heights–it’s not one of my “favorites,” necessarily, but there is a place in my heart for it (right next to movies like “The Wackness,” Click, and “Clerks II”).

This was the winner for the second Project Greenlight contest for screenwriting and directing. As with the first contest winner (2002’s Stolen Summer), the making of 2003’s “The Battle of Shaker Heights” from its conception to its premiere screening was chronicled heavily for HBO’s reality series Project Greenlight. I own this collection of “Project Greenlight 2” on DVD, complete with the finished movie.

But way before I even knew about Project Greenlight, I first saw the movie on cable-TV. when I was 12 years old Because it starred Shia LaBeouf and I was a diehard “Even Stevens” fan (it was made just as “Even Stevens” ended and Shia had just done “Holes”), I was hooked from his appearance alone. It was one of the first “indie” films I ever took interest in (and then shortly came the “Napoleon Dynamite” craze). A few years later, I bought the Project Greenlight 2 DVD set and checked out what went on making the film.

I’ve seen a lot of BTS docs as a kid, on DVD extras for movies like “The Goonies,” School of Rock, and “Back to the Future.” But this was different–it showed the ugly side of making a movie for a studio. There were producers breathing down the directors’ necks. The directors were pains in the asses. The writer is either in or out of the loop. There was hardly room for compromise a lot of the time. There’s a lot of passive-aggressiveness amongst the crew. (And strangely enough, despite the film being made for Miramax, Harvey Weinstein stays out of the picture.) It was like, “DAMN! THAT’S what it’s like to make a movie?!”

It made me upset…yet at the same time, I binged the entire series and saw it through because I was still intrigued by it all.

Anyway, back to the movie. Shia LaBeouf stars as a sullen teenager named Kelly, who is a war reenactor. The battles are his way of escaping everyday life, which he finds boring and unfulfilling. He makes friends with Bart (Elden Henson), who comes from a privileged WASPy home and wants to do something for himself. Kelly and Bart’s friendship sparks a developing change in Kelly, which begins as Bart suggests they use their tactical skills to stage a payback operation against Kelly’s bully Lance (Billy Kay).

Speaking of whom, this is my favorite exchange between Kelly and Lance:

LANCE: “Why are you d*cking with me, you little d*ck?! You wanna play, d*ck-face?” KELLY: “Wait…you just used ‘d*ck’ as a noun, adjective, and a verb. That’s impressive.”

Kelly also develops a crush on Bart’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), who is soon to be married (like Kelly cares about that). Kelly tries to be smooth and confident around her, but Tabby, being the smart artist that she is, doesn’t take him too seriously. Kelly’s of course too blind to realize he should be with his cute, friendly co-worker Sarah (Shiri Appleby), and that blindness could lead to a bit of trouble. Where this story goes is pretty easy to figure out, but both Shia LaBeouf and Amy Smart still play it really well.

There’s also Kelly’s parents–his mother Eva (Kathleen Quinlan), who’s a commercial artist, and his father Abe (William Sadler), who works with drug addicts and has been clean for five years. In the film, these characters seem underdeveloped. But in the Project Greenlight show, we see more of who these people are, and the Abe character in particular is the most compelling character in the story. Miramax, worried about whether they could market a comedy or a drama, insisted upon numerous cuts to the film, which resulted in the more emotional parts of the movie left on the cutting room floor.

Screw you, Weinsteins.

The film we got isn’t great, but it is good, in my opinion. LaBeouf shines in the lead and it’s really his character and his journey that makes the movie worth recommending. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the studio kept their dirty little hands off a product they should’ve believed in in the first place.

But, and I’m not giving credit to the Weinsteins in the slightest here, that might have something to do with the film’s pair of directors Kyle Rankin & Efram Potelle were extremely difficult to work with! I get that they were amateurs getting their big break to make a studio-funded film, but these guys seriously needed to try harder in being professional. Watching the show again recently, I sided with producer Chris Moore, who had to keep telling them again and again that they needed to learn compromise.

I had to look up both directors to see if they had done anything since. They had made a few projects, though not together and not of much note. It’s actually shocking to see that Rankin directed “Run Hide Fight,” the controversial action thriller film I heard about recently. As for Erica Beeney, the screenwriter for whom I always felt sorry, she wrote “Captive State” a couple years ago.

“The Battle of Shaker Heights” didn’t define anyone’s career, but it’s still a decent flick and I like to pop in the DVD every once in a while. And that’s about as good a recommendation as I can give, when it’s all said and done.

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