It may not be necessary to have a title card at the start of “Miles” announcing that the film is “Inspired by a True Story” since Nathan Adloff’s second feature is so vividly detailed, both visually and emotionally, you know it had to come from a place of truth. One can just imagine that the same “Forbidden Planet” and “Harry and the Hendersons” posters adorned Adloff’s walls as a kid as they do in the basement where the movie-mad titular character (played by Tim Boardman) resides and that he was striking up the same conversations with strangers over instant messenger during the dial-up days of the late 1990s as a way of escaping mentally from the small-town life in Illinois he’d come to resent, even if he couldn’t leave physically until graduating high school. (The director confessed after the film’s premiere at the Seattle Film Fest that indeed the top name on the IM handles seen in the film was his best friend’s in real life.)
Yet Adloff also had an experience in junior high that proves to be fertile territory not only for a comedy, but quite the endearing coming-of-age story as Miles is consigned to joining the girls’ volleyball team since there’s no boys’ team at his school, diverging from the director’s real life as part of a fiendishly clever plan to earn a scholarship that will let him leave the farming community of Pondley for Chicago where he hopes to go to film school. The need is desperate for Miles, whose college fund was drained by his father Ron (Stephen Root) just before he unexpectedly died of a heart attack, leaving both he and his mother Pam (Molly Shannon) in a financial lurch that Miles’ job at the concessions stand at the local movie theater won’t even start to pay for.
However, admirably, neither wallow in their bad fortune, perhaps because Ron treated both terribly, but also the film makes clear, they’re just not the type to, with Pam dutifully attending a Widows and Widowers support group where she strikes up a relationship with school superintendent Lloyd (Paul Reiser) and Miles picks himself up by the bootstraps to hit the volleyball court where he finds a supporter in the Pondley Warriors’ coach (Missi Pyle, who constantly threatens to walk off with the film). After Ron’s death, Adloff takes great care to create characters that are so easy to like, a combination of canny casting, a can-do spirit and once again, the accumulation of details the director and his co-writer Justin D.M. Palmer get just right in terms of their behavior, always opting for what feels right for the character rather than what might make the film funnier, making it all the more impressive that when something outrageous happens like someone peeing on a car for revenge, it’s an entirely justified moment.
Still, the spikes of edgier humor in “Miles” stick out as a result of how sweet the rest of the film is and as light a touch as Adloff shows for handling such thorny themes as grief and Miles’ pervasive sense of being an outsider, familiar story mechanics are gradually exposed as the film wears on when Pondley High’s rival high schools begin to forfeit games to protest Miles playing on a girls’ team, leading to a climactic meeting of the school administration involving Lloyd. By then, “Miles” has built up enough goodwill to overcome the rare moment that feels like a plot contrivance and it’s a minor complaint for a film that has so much else going for it with every character in the film given their due and cinematographer Hunter Baker bringing such a strong sense of composition to the confines of a Midwestern burg. Though its lead character may feel trapped by his surroundings, “Miles” finds inspiration in them, itself something to celebrate, but even more so when it’s conveyed as jubilantly as Adloff does here.