People matter in Fat Kid Rules the World; genre not so much. Matthew Lillard’s guileless high school-set film certainly exists in the same universe as 10 Things I Hate About You and its ilk, inundated with moody teenage archetypes and life-changing scenarios involving drugs and alcohol. But the film’s real concerns are the nuanced compromises its characters make to sustain friendships and family ties, however distressed their situations become. This kind of focus on the resilience and loyalty of these characters’ lives is surprising and welcome, especially since Lillard deals with heavy, potentially melodramatic issues such as suicide, repression, and trauma.
Fat Kid Rules the World opens with a loner mired in angst and isolation. The titular overweight teen, Troy (Jacob Wysocki), goes about his daily routine sulking through an uncaring world. He eats lunch by himself in a crowded cafeteria, walks sullenly down the hallways of his high school, and stares lifelessly out the classroom window as his teacher blathers on about Piggy in Lord of the Flies. Lillard’s symbolism is painfully overt in these early moments, especially when Troy finds himself standing on the corner, ready for a bus to run him over, even imagining the act in gory detail. Here, it feels like Fat Kid Rules the World will turn into yet another ironic and dark teen comedy obsessed with visualizing its protagonist’s every hollow fantasy. But just as Troy is set to get splattered all over the pavement, he gets pushed out of the way by Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a skuzzy Kurt Cobain-wannabe who wanders the streets of Seattle looking for his next drug fix.
The two outcasts form a meandering, sincere, and at times self-destructive friendship, much to the chagrin of Troy’s austere Marine father, Mr. Billings (Billy Campbell). As Troy and Marcus spend more time together, Lillard makes it clear that both characters are using each other to sustain rather damaging delusions of identity. Troy may have discovered a newfound sense of spirit and rebelliousness in Marcus’s punk-rock façade, but he uses it to bury the still-potent trauma of his mother’s death. Marcus’s deception is much more instinctual, manipulating Troy with promises of camaraderie and stardom if he helps him sustain his addiction.
Thankfully, Lilllard avoids pigeonholing either character, never defining them by any one emotional or physical trait. As a result, glimpses of heartfelt excitement and inspiration spring forth during the most surprising moments, like when the drugged-out Marcus suddenly realizes that Troy has learned to play the drums just so the two can form a band together, or when Mr. Billings quietly rummages through old photos after Marcus’s shocking presence reminds him of past wilder days.
Fat Kid Rules the World may be visually flat and often poorly paced, but it remains resolutely focused on these kinds of complex characterizations. Lillard respects his actors, giving Wysocki, O’Leary, and Campbell plenty of room to breathe and lingering on their faces as they express the emotions words cannot. This level of patience and attentiveness makes the film’s rousing, rock-infused denouement at a packed open-air parking structure all the more resonant, even if it is slightly formulaic. Here, at the top of the world, the fat kid rules with a little help from the people that matter most, and he appreciates every moment.