Jimmy Bennett, above, stars in “Alabama Moon,” a 2009 film
adaptation of Watt Key’s novel of the same name. (Faulkner-McLean Entertainment)
This review accompanies AL.com’s Red Clay Readers summer series following books by authors with Alabama ties and the films they inspired.
Does a child raised in the Alabama forests by a paranoid, anti-government survivalist stand any chance in ever trusting another human being, even when they extend a hand in his greatest time of need?
Watt Key’s 2006 young adult novel “Alabama Moon” explores that through the eyes of 11-year-old Moon Blake, a resourceful rapscallion left to his own devices after suddenly losing his father to an accident in the woods.
Director Tim McCanlies adapted Key’s novel into a motion picture, which premiered at the Sidewalk Film Festival in September 2009.
Key’s novel finds itself deeply rooted in Alabama forests, full of references to real Alabama cities. But sadly, incentives to film in states other than Alabama prove too tough to pass up for filmmakers with a limited budget.
So McCanlies and his crew instead opted for Louisiana, though the film remains set in the Yellowhammer state. We get those same references to Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Mobile and other cities, but the film’s biggest problem lies in the fact that region it adopts never finds tangible life on screen.
McCanlies gets to the heart of Key’s coming-of-age tale of survival, tragedy and trust just fine through a series a emotional scenes that won’t have trouble connecting with most audiences, especially children. But it’s frustrating when a film with Alabama in its title can’t find its production in that state, losing a crucial sense of place for that audience, particularly those from the area. So any reference to Tuscaloosa, Livingston or Pinson ultimately loses meaning because the film literally won’t take us there.
But let’s not get too hung up on the geography and see if “Alabama Moon” the film accomplishes what it actually set out to, which is realize Key’s literary vision on the big screen.
So once Moon’s father breaks his leg and won’t seek medical help in the city, the young man loses his father and must fend for himself in the Alabama wilderness using the resources and knowledge his eccentric father taught him.
“We don’t owe anything to anybody,” his father tells him early on, not giving Moon much of a chance at all to connect to the outside world, much less a desire to ever do so. “Don’t trust anybody.”
After the boy buries his father, he wonders through the woods and on to the property of a kind lawyer (John Goodman) who calls the police to help him, only the local constable (Clint Howard) only makes the boy’s life an even greater struggle by handing him directly to the Pinson Boy’s Home. So his anti-government father’s worse nightmare comes true, as his son becomes property of the state.
Moon makes a strong impression, immediately confronting (and befriending) the institution’s big bully Hal and insisting to new friends like the sickly Kit and the home’s administrators that he plans to bust out and head back home as soon as he gets an opportunity.
But even as Moon yearns to go back to the woods and carry on as his father taught him, he already embraces elements of the outside world from which his dad sheltered him like friends and even food. Life on the “outside” isn’t so bad after all, but Moon remains reluctant to trust anyone, unless he needs help escaping.
You can’t blame Moon’s lack of trust or respect for the authority tasked with “helping” him adjust to the real world, particularly Howard’s cartoonishly evil constable and the boy’s smarmy home director (Michael P. Sullivan). Maybe Moon’s dad had it right, after all. Why trust anybody if they just want to gleefully put him behind bars, cut his mop hairdo and take away his precious possessions? The outsider portrayal of Alabama authority figures, particularly its government officials, leaves plenty to be desired, but these characters are pretty commonplace in children’s films no matter the setting.
The strengths of this movie definitely lie in Moon’s acclimation to society, learning it’s OK to make friends and think differently. As a more positive adult character says to him about his paranoid father late in the movie, “You don’t have to feel like he did. Most people don’t.” He doesn’t insult his upbringing. Instead, he just lets the young man know he has a choice in how he lives and whom he trusts.
The film features beautiful cinematography from Jimmy Lindsey, a frequent collaborator with Robert Rodriguez and director of photography on HBO shows “Veep” and “Eastbound & Down.” It also has a nice musical score composed by Ludek Drizhal, who gracefully channels Thomas Newman without miming.
John Goodman, above, co-stars in “Alabama Moon,” based on Watt Key’s 2006 novel. (Faulkner-McLean Entertainment)
Goodman and Howard are the only recognizable faces in the modestly budgeted production, and they generously lend their familiar touches, though Howard often plays his villain pretty over the top. But I don’t know what else you’d expect from Clint Howard. Young Jimmy Bennett plays Moon. You might recognize him from J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” where he played a young James T. Kirk on the run from police.
The film is sweet and should still play well with young audiences despite wandering into cliched territory, complete with a forced courtroom climax that doesn’t reward the characters as you’d hope. But you still root for Moon and his journey to find individuality and trust through tragedy at a young age.
Still, you wish other states’ incentives weren’t so enticing that filmmakers would opt to tell specifically-set stories elsewhere. Mimicking geography rarely works, and generic woods don’t necessarily breathe life into a region you’re depicting. So please come film in Alabama, folks, even you must stretch your dollars. You won’t regret it.
Note: The film is relatively hard to find. It is available for rental on disc via Netflix, but it’s expensive to purchase the DVD. I happened to find it at the Tuscaloosa Public Library, so be sure to check your local catalogs.
(Courtesy of al.com)