As arbitrary as it often is to rank films out a festival, establishing a hierarchy that means little after the festival’s over, the most pleasant surprise at SXSW this year may very well have had to do the competition, not necessarily in a qualitative sense, though it held up well in that department. Instead, it’s because by the simple act of transferring dialogue from the foul-mouthed twentysomethings that usually populate Austin screens at this particular time of year to a group of underaged lads, “Funeral Kings” figures out a fresh way into the coming-of-age tale.
Ironically, freshness doesn’t entirely seem to be what first-time directors Kevin and Matthew McManus are going for with the story of best friends and alter boys Andrew (Dylan Hartigan) and Charlie (Alex Maizus). Though there are markers of time, a DVD store stocked with XXX movies and a preoccupation with the F-word that’s undoubtedly up to date, the two young teens don’t belong to any era in particular, obsessed with all the same things boys of that age are — the things they can’t have yet, whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes or the women whose skirts they look up in church. So it comes as a bit of a boon when Bobby, one of their fellow alter boys leaves without explanation, even for the padlocked chest he puts on Andy’s doorstep in the dead of night.
Starved of much else in their mundane adolescence, the chest and Bobby’s enigmatic replacement on the pew, David (Jordan Puzzo), give Andrew and Charlie some new stuff to ponder, though it’s of significantly less substance than what Andrew’s stepmother tells him directly at one point: “You’re going to have to decide what kind of person you’re going to be.” And as it is for the kids themselves, the challenge for the McManus brothers with “Funeral Kings” is keeping the more serious side of growing up mostly at bay while indulging in the innocent fun of youth. The comedy is deceptively simple. Besides the amusingly incongruous score of rap music and the barbed dialogue between the moptopped firebrand Charlie and the more tentative Andrew, the contradiction between what the boys think will happen and what actually does is the film’s bread-and-butter for laughs as the boys’ attempt to make off with some adult DVDs from the local video store has them getting involved in some very adult trouble.
One needs only to look at the many fake movie posters around the store or the town in general to know the amount of detail that went into “Funeral Kings” and the place where it’s perhaps least evident, but the most effective is in the casting. Hartigan and Maizus, not to mention a third alter boy named Felix (Charles Kwame Odei), have a wonderful chemistry together and bring considerably more to the film than what could’ve possibly been on the page. Not only do the McManus brothers allow the unforced conversations dictate the relaxed tone of the film, except in Maizus’ case since the kid’s a force of nature, but they take care to develop the supporting players such as Kevin Corrigan as a surly video clerk and fellow altar boys Puzzo and Odei to each have some really nice moments onscreen.
If “Funeral Kings” has a shortcoming, it may be that the film plays better moment to moment than it does as a cohesive whole, with onscreen captions to denote the weekdays that pass which are ultimately more distracting than purposeful, yet it’s an undeniably assured debut from the director’s chair to its young cast and with any luck, the film will find distribution soon. If it does, expect to feel like Andrew and Charlie when they crack open the chest.