Hollywood’s best commodities this year were both unexpected: Inside Man, a taut deconstruction of racial profiling that redeems Spike Lee from the travesty of She Hate Me and shows up the regressive United 93 (Paul Greengrass skillfully but pointlessly recreates our worst collective nightmare; Lee seriously sorts through its emotional fallout), and Jessica Bendinger’s Stick It, a film that strikes a positive, uniquely defiant feminist stance that’s as expressive as its kaleidoscopic tumbling shots. Over in the kiddie side of the industry pool: Aquamarine was a sweet ode to the malleable nature of friendship. It is now joined there by writer-director Wil Shriner’s Hoot, an adaptation of the popular Carl Hiaasen book of the same name.
The film begins with a striking bullying scene: Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), new to Coconut Grove, Florida, gets his face pushed against a school bus window by a tubby boy in his class but is distracted by a barefoot boy running outside. This scene compacts duress and hope, expressing and summarizing the confusion of young teenage experience. The story dawdles—Roy’s relationship with the running boy and his sister Beatrice (Brie Larson) is sluggishly intercut with the emasculating crisis of a police officer (Luke Wilson) who gets his cop car downgraded to a golf cart-style patrol vehicle—but it has a healthy message to impart about standing up to evildoers (the film modifies political vernacular in terms a child could understand, turning flip-flopping into flap-jacking), and it does so without pretense, condescension, or piety.
Roy learns that a Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House is going to be built over a spot of land where a population of endangered owls live. His goal to save these birds collides with the running boy’s more “outlaw” approach, and what’s daring about the film is its suggestion that a synergy of the two tactics may be necessary: Roy heeds his father’s advice and looks for the expected white-collar paper trail, but the more anxious Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley) settles for stealing, graffiting, and kidnapping, desperately buying and re-buying time for the owls and his friend. It isn’t physical appearance that makes these two boys friends but their shared moral outlook—a communion that exists but few films about children ever acknowledge.
There are some unattractive edges around the mountain slopes that open the film, and there is evidence of edge enhancement throughout, but the image is otherwise smooth going, boasting deep blacks and solid shadow delineation. And though the film's sound design is a restrained affair, the track is richly atmospheric: The many sounds of the film's endangered natural landscape-cricket chirps, foot stomps, and rolling bulldozers-conspire to evoke a truly lush sense of place.
On their joint commentary track, director Wil Shriner and author Carl Hiaasen speak boringly about the film, largely to each other and with very little awareness of their audience. Skip puffy behind-the-scenes featurettes like "Jimmy Buffett: Filmmaker in Paradise" and "Director on the Set" and head straight for "Backyard Habitat" and "Hoot's Hands-On Habitat Project" that, with the help of the National Wildlife Federation, promote you-can-make-a-difference animal activism. Rounding out the disc is a blooper reel, six deleted scenes with optional commentary, and trailers for Hoot, How to Eat Fried Worms, The Ant Bully, and IMAX: Deep Sea 3D.
The most goodhearted children's film of 2006 barely made a blip at the box office, but you can save it now that it's on DVD.