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NPR Arts & Life

Putting Some Awkwardly Adolescent Fun In 'Funeral'

On the days they work funerals, Charlie (Alex Maizus) and his altar-boy friends have a habit of ditching school afterward and finding mischief.
On the days they work funerals, Charlie (Alex Maizus) and his altar-boy friends have a habit of ditching school afterward and finding mischief.

The titular altar boys would probably enjoy Funeral Kings. The first feature from sibling filmmakers Kevin and Matthew McManus has most everything the average adolescent boy wants: swearing, smoking, swearing, gun violence, swearing and cute girls. And swearing.

They'd likely emerge from the cinema — provided they'd found a means of sneaking into the R-rated screening — quoting the most profane lines and complaining that none of the aforementioned cute girls took off their shirts. This is what teenage boys do — and that headlong hormonal rush toward what boys perceive as the benefits of adulthood is what the brothers McManus capture here with candor and occasional hilarity.

Set in a small Rhode Island town circa the early '00s — the few mobile phones are of the clamshell variety, and a still-operational video store plays an integral part in the plot — the film follows a trio of Catholic middle-schoolers and miscreants-in-the-making who have scored the prime church assignment of weekday funeral duty. This gets them out of classes from time to time, and once the services are done, they skip out for the rest of the day.

They've got a pretty standard routine established — of slacking and cheating the local Chinese buffet on its all-you-can-eat lunch special — until the oldest of the trio, Bobby (Brandon Waltz), shows up at Andy's (Dylan Hartigan) house late one night to drop off a padlocked footlocker for safekeeping before speeding off into the darkness.

Andy (Dylan Hartigan) must convince a pious fellow altar boy not to give away the details of their afternoons playing hooky.
/ Freestyle Releasing
Andy (Dylan Hartigan) must convince a pious fellow altar boy not to give away the details of their afternoons playing hooky.

Turns out Bobby's off to juvenile hall, leaving Andy and his baby-faced, foul-mouthed buddy Charlie (Alex Maizus) with a trunk full of unknown contraband. His departure also introduces a new third funeral attendant, a new-to-town goody-two-shoes named David (Jordan Puzzo). Andy and Charlie need David to keep his mouth shut about their post-funeral adventures, and David needs some friends, so a new gang is born.

This depiction of the opportunism inherent in many adolescent friendships — built out of convenience, circumstance and fear of being a middle-school castoff — is where the film is strongest. Bobby is a pretty horrible friend, but he keeps the younger kids around because he can boss them around, while Charlie and Andy benefit from having an older friend.

Meanwhile, Charlie only grudgingly accepts David into the group when they discover he acted in a blockbuster movie before moving to town, a fact that Charlie figures will help draw in girls. Later, the treasure trove discovered when they finally bust open the abandoned footlocker draws in an otherwise casual friend who wants to get his hands on one item in particular.

The basic, ugly truths in those allegiances, which swing as quickly as the boys' hormonal moods, help compensate for the film's weaker elements — namely the shaky performances from the leads. The McManuses shot the film with a loose, handheld style that one suspects was meant to encourage on-set spontaneity, but instead makes the kids seem unsure and under-rehearsed.

Puzzo, notably, was also seen in another film this year that featured stilted child acting: Moonrise Kingdom. But that film's surreal setting used the affected performances as an effective distancing tool. The same choppy line readings don't play as well in the otherwise realistic environment of Funeral Kings.

The movie also recalls other, better coming-of-age stories, from Superbadto Stand By Me —and if it seems odd to think of those two films in the same headspace, the effect is just as awkward in practice. The hormonal antics of the boys — plotting elaborate scenarios to meet girls, concocting madcap schemes to steal porn from the video store — careen into moments of attempted poignancy, but the directors aren't yet quite nimble enough to navigate those shifts as deftly as required.

But the McManuses' skill with character detail does hold promise for future efforts. The boys in the film are on the verge of maturity; while there appears to be very little grace in their interactions with their church, they are just beginning to find some within their own characters. Perhaps that's appropriate for two directors who seem on the threshold of an artistic maturity hinted at by this first effort.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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