The Battle Of Shaker Heights

on August 22, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
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There's no other movie-viewing experience quite like Project Greenlight, the online contest that grants a novice screenwriter and director (in this case a helming duo) the chance to make their first movie under the scrutiny of a documentary film crew. One witnesses the winning script's grisly making-of before ever sitting down in a movie theatre. And the weekly series on HBO isn't a gushy behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD, either. Fans of the show know going in exactly what the faults of the film are because they've been discussed in detail on the small screen amid threats from the studio of going straight to video and the emotional desertion of producer Chris Moore, who, to his credit, ultimately reboarded a project more than once compared with the Titanic.

It's pleasantly surprising, then, to see the final product and find it downright enjoyable. It's true that "The Battle of Shaker Heights," the winning screenplay, is lacking in dramatic punch--the major scenes of which, "Greenlight" watchers know, have been axed to up its comedy quotient. But what remains is very funny and charming, owing as much to star Shia LaBeouf ("Holes") as Erica Beeney's quippy script.

LaBeouf stars as Kelly, a smart-mouthed 17-year-old who spends his weekends veering from the script during World War II reenactments. There he meets Bart (Elden Henson), a kid his age whose WASP-ish upbringing starkly contrasts with Kelly's home life with an artist mother and recovering alcoholic father. Soon Bart's family welcomes Kelly as one of their own, including sister Tabby (Amy Smart), who's about to be married. But, when Kelly pursues his romantic feelings for Tabby, he risks his new friendship with Bart, who accuses him of confusing fantasy with reality. There are also subplots involving revenge on a bully and Kelly forgiving his father for past transgressions--a storyline that gets short shrift in this abbreviated version of the film Project Greenlight set out to make.

Among all of the newcomers behind the camera, the real find here is LaBeouf, who demonstrates a clever wit and an appealing poignancy in his performance, somehow striking chemistry with both Henson and the older Smart--a particular challenge, as he has to convince that a kid still in high school could attract the attention of a Yale graduate student, however briefly. It's unfortunate that his more dramatic scenes, shown on the TV show, didn't make the final cut, as they would further solidify his reputation as an exciting new actor. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Kathleen Quinlan, Shiri Appleby and William Sadler. Directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. Written by Erica Beeney. Produced by Chris Moore and Jeff Balis. A Miramax release. Drama/Comedy. Rated PG-13 for language and some drug references. Running time: 78 min

Tags: Shia LaBeouf, Elden Henson, Amy Smart, Kathleen Quinlan, Shiri Appleby and William Sadler. Directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. Written by Erica Beeney. Produced by Chris Moore and Jeff Balis. A Miramax release. Drama/Comedy, charming, quippy, reenactments, World War II
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