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The Battle of Shaker Heights

KELLY'S WAR

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If you have a teen-age son with a sophisticated vocabulary and a wry sense of humor, or one with no sense of humor at all, you may want to arrange a family night and take him to see The Battle of Shaker Heights, which plays like a 90-minute pilot episode for a WB series, except that it's showing now at a theater near you.

Set in the titular, affluent Cleveland suburb, its central figure is Kelly (Shia LaBeouf), a 17-year-old boy with a Dawson-like intellect, a Pacey-like iconoclasm (or so he thinks), and a tidy mop of curly black hair. He works at a grocery story, attends public high school, and takes part in elaborate World War II re-enactments, although he angers his peers when he goes creatively off script, commandeering a German soldier's uniform to free his captured buddy.

Still, at one event, he's befriended by Bart (Elden Henson), a pug-faced rich kid with a petite blond pompadour and a hottie grad-school artist-sister (Amy Smart). Kelly charms Bart's flaky society parents (the father collects nesting dolls) and awkwardly woos sis, all the while coping passively with his own benignly dysfunctional loving family: Dad (William Sadler) is a recovering substance-abuser who now helps addicts, and Mom (Kathleen Quinlan) is a stay-at-home artist/teacher who quietly disapproves of her son's war games. (Kelly's affinity for carnage is purely intellectual.)

The Battle of Shaker Heights is inevitably the kind of movie you make nowadays when you're awarded $1 million from producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's HBO series Project Greenlight: It's concise, unambitious, and written for its young target audience, with a few recognizable actors to legitimize it, and with an intuitive and promising young newcomer in the lead.

You might be generous and argue that Kelly's contrived life and supple rhetoric permit screenwriter Erica Beeney, and directors Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, to re-enact their own adolescent angst. But I think they just don't have much imagination, and they certainly don't think teen-agers do, if this is the movie they offer them, although the friendship between Kelly and Bart eventually turns into a poignant look at how opposites attract.

The dialogue in Shaker Heights is thoroughly age-appropriate -- in the age of Dawson's Creek, that is. Naturally things work out for Kelly, who learns that reality is messy, love is not a fairy tale, and life is not a re-enactment. (Joey didn't learn those lessons until Episode Five, so Kelly's ahead of schedule.) It's a harmless and entertaining little blip on the indie cinema radar, like an after-school very special, and another good primer for emerging young freaks and geeks who need to be reminded that if they'd just be themselves, then they, too, can get the girl.


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