Inspired by Simon Carr’s popular memoir, “The Boys Are Back” might have been reduced to sentimental mush in the hands of a lesser director, but Scott Hicks (“Shine”) and star Clive Owen rarely strike a false note in this engaging, serious-minded tale of a widower struggling to raise two boys in the Australian outback.
Joe (Owen) is a top sportswriter, accustomed to life on the road and woefully inexperienced as a parent. After the sudden death of his second wife (Laura Fraser), he is charged with raising Artie (newcomer Nicholas McAnulty), a rambunctious 6-year-old given to wild outbursts followed by fits of near-catatonic despair.
Joe, unsuited to playing Mr. Mom, is clearly overmatched.
Things get tougher when Harry (George MacKay, of “Defiance”), his teenage son from a previous marriage, comes to visit for the summer.
Unlike Artie, Harry is old enough to recognize Joe’s most glaring shortcomings — he’s set in his ways, however misguided, and he’s not a good listener. His intentions are noble, but his parenting is boorish and wrong-headed.
Joe believes in raising his boys without structure, giving them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them on their own, but his permissiveness often leads to disaster.
He’s slow to recognize the danger in his just-say-yes approach, not because he’s lazy or uncaring, but because he’s so stubbornly convinced that he’s right.
During one of the movie’s most alarming sequences, Joe takes a ride along the shore with Artie perched on the hood of his SUV. He never considers the possible consequences — he’s too married to the moment, acting more like a grown-up playmate than a father.
That’s part of Joe’s appeal. He’ll go to any lengths to please his sons, but all too rarely does he consider the risks in his choices.
Owen, who seemed so effortlessly self-assured in movies like “Duplicity” and “The International,” plays a very different character here, one who’s learning on the job and forced, finally, to acknowledge his failures. He delivers a natural, unforced performance that complements Allan Cubitt’s spare, honest screenplay.
Equally impressive are McAnulty and MacKay, who convey the right amount of world-weariness without seeming calculated or precious. Along with Owen, they are the heart of a movie that walks a fine line with nary a misstep.
The Boys Are Back
Starring: Clive Owen, Laura Fraser, Emma Booth, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty
Written by Simon Carr, Allan Cubitt
Directed by Scott Hicks
Running time 1 hour 44 minutes