Based on Simon Carr’s memoir, The Boys Are Back in Town, Scott Hicks’ new film puts Clive Owen at the centre of a family drama that tugs at the heartstrings but doesn’t have the gumption to actually cut the cords. That it remains engaging and entertaining is down to stylish direction and unfussy, believable performances.
Joe Warr (Owen) is a sports journalist, happily married to Katy (Fraser); they have a young son Artie (McAnulty) and live in a large house amid the wide-open spaces of South Australia. When Katy is treated for cancer and ultimately succumbs to the disease, Joe, Artie and Katy’s family are forced to evaluate how their roles and responsibilities to each other have changed. Joe is now a single father and can’t afford to be the dad who comes home from press trips with sweets and gifts: he has to be ever-present. It’s a position he struggles with but the introduction of his “just say yes” policy to parenting allows him to believe he has his son, and his emotions, where he wants them.
Life gets complicated when Harry (MacKay), his son from a previous relationship, arrives from England, and Joe begins to increasingly rely on Laura (Booth), a single mother he meets at Artie’s school. Faced with being a father, mentor, educator, friend, son-in-law, suitor and breadwinner, Joe finds he can no longer stretch to all those bases. The Boys Are Back is not bleak, nor is it particularly sentimental, but it does shy away from confronting loss through its need to move the story forward: in a sense saying: “Let’s not dwell here, we should get to the heart-warming bits.” Compressing the timescale means Katy dies minutes after receiving her diagnosis, and Joe’s grief is summed up by losing his temper and disappearing with a bottle of whisky … next scene, time to move on …
The Boys Are Back has a stillness and beauty that’s derived from Greig Fraser’s breathtaking cinematography, and it offers a worthy alternative to the fast and chaotic nature of many mainstream movies. Its story just isn’t daring or different enough to take audiences anywhere new. Instead, it’s solid entertainment with a conventional message. A touch of the unexpected and this would have been a far more compelling journey.