Childhood is the perfect vehicle for the exploration of nostalgia. Most of us think of selected periods from our youth with a yearning for the winsome innocence that is buried deep in our memories. Nostalgia is dangerous for a filmmaker to approach, though, because of all the things that can go wrong as the story can become too saccharine, melodramatic, cloying or just flat-out embarrassing.
The director of Flipped is Rob Reiner and he's no stranger to infusing nostalgia into his films. This is the man who was involved in one of the most nostalgic films of all-time with 1986's Stand By Me. That film hit all the right notes in telling a story about a group of friends on the verge of adulthood in the late 1950s. It was funny, sweet, tender and memorable in every way. Stand By Me is a magical film that is now thought of as a classic in the coming-of-age genre.
Nearly 25 years after Stand By Me, Reiner has returned to the warm-hearted hues of childhood with Flipped. This time, an even more delicate subject matter is tackled: first love. Capturing all the fragile hormonal issues relating to young love is an emotional mine field fraught with hazards. Unfortunately, Flipped isn't able to rise above all the sentimental traps that doom it as a predictable, labored and much too earnest failure.
Flipped begins in 1957 with Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) moving into a suburban neighborhood with the rest of his family. Bryce meets his neighbor from across the street, Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll), and the pair form a connection from the first moments that they meet. On one side (Juli) it is love, on the other side (Bryce) it is annoyance. They are both seven years old.
The film follows the duo as they grow older up until 1963, when they are entering seventh grade, and Bryce dreams of being free of the irritating and always around Juli Baker. Out of the blue, Bryce unexpectedly begins to think of Juli in new light. There are moments when he catches himself staring at her in chemistry class. There are confusing rumblings of nervousness when he's in her presence. Could he actually like this pest? While Bryce grows fond of the notion of Juli, she begins to question her feelings toward him. Bryce might not be worthy of all her rabid devotions through the years if he keeps on acting up and hurting her feelings or insulting her family.
Along with the Bryce/Juli story line, Flipped follows various family subplots that attempt to lend depth to the film. Rarely are these side elements effective. There are loosely explored, heavy-handed socioeconomic conflicts between the two families.
The Loskis being more secure in their middle class; the Bakers rent their house and choose not to keep it up, preferring to spend their money on Juli's uncle living at an expensive care facility. There are unspoken issues of both sets of parents, their frustrations and foibles that never actually impact the story. These off-shoots are generally a waste of time as the only story worth pursuing is the one between Bryce and Juli.
The film is told in a format of alternating he said, she said sections and I initially hated this switching viewpoints. When transitioning from Bryce's version to Juli's, the screen would actually "flip" itself over to let us know a new perspective was coming. This was unnecessary and an example that you shouldn't try so hard that the audience is witness to the excessive labor. As the story unfolded, I grew to like the back and forth. It added to the romantic tension and created some genuine tender moments when we see how one person's perception of another person can just be completely wrong, no matter their ages.
What I couldn't stand was the use of too much narration by both Bryce and Juli. I'd prefer to never hear a word of narration in any film as a little bit of narration goes a long way. Too much voice-over just means that the script is flawed with the need to talk to the audience about story. Let the characters' words move the story forward. Flipped has more narration than dialogue, creating a divide between character and audience that makes it harder to form an honest connection with what happens on screen.
And the dialogue that we do get (by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman based on a novel by Wendelin Van Draanen) is an assortment of hokey, too innocent or too self-aware lines that feel false as much as they have the tone of reality for kids this age. Sometimes a film with cornball dialogue thinks the audience won't notice that its dialogue is so atrocious because it is set in a bygone era. Flipped takes this approach. Since its setting is the early 1960s, a time of universal sweetness and a more naive America, it gives us the appropriate dialogue in all the cliché ways.
McAuliffe and Carroll are actually rather likable as the kids dealing with the frustrations and misunderstood feelings they are discovering in themselves. Both are charming young actors who give the best two performances in the film. When there are solid actors such as John Mahoney, Aidan Quinn and Anthony Edwards sharing the screen with you, that's an accomplishment. The problem for the rest of the cast is their characters were too one-note whereas Bryce and Juli were the only drawn-out people in Flipped. Now, if only they all could have had a few minutes of narration to explain their actions, thoughts and opinions, maybe they would have been more rounded and interesting. Just kidding.
Flipped wants to recreate an aura of nostalgia for what it was like to be a young person and in love in the early 1960s. Its intention is to have you feeling warm and touched when you leave the theatre when it's over. These weren't the feelings I felt. Flipped overdoses on the cute and maudlin, leaving me cold and distant with my eyes just as dry as when the lights dimmed.
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