From the department of wannabe-George Washington rural lyricism comes Five Time Champion, a coming-of-age tale that, with every landscape cutaway and twinkling note from its xylophone-heavy score, begs to be taken as a dreamy slice of countryside profundity. In an unnamed Texas town, tween Julius (Ryan Akin) slices worms and then studies their regenerative powers, a science project that attracts an esteemed prep school’s attention and, more importantly, speaks to his own desire to heal deep-seated wounds—specifically, the abandonment of his daddy, whom everyone claims is gay. Such apparent slander leads Julius to fight others and to question his own sexuality when he fails to perform in bed with girlfriend Shiley (Noell Coet), whose friendship with another boy arouses jealousy in Julius and leads him to entertain thoughts of turning his affections toward a flirtatious classmate. Just as Julius’s desires are torn between two girls, so too are his mom’s (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) between wealthy school administrator boyfriend Melvin (Jon Gries) and local hayseed Levi (Justin Arnold), as well as his grandfather’s between his wife (Betty Buckley) and the dying mistress whom he openly cares for, much to his spouse’s initial chagrin. It’s a veritable round-robin of romantic and carnal conflict, laid out by writer-director Berndt Mader with a schematism almost as pronounced as his young lead’s one-note woodenness.
Though his wide-eyed glare convincingly comingles anger, boredom, and uncertainty, Akin has a way of turning dialogue hopelessly flat, his line readings so monotonous that even when it approaches a tender or tense moment, Five Time Champion can’t help but feel artificial. The same is true of Mader’s transitional imagery of grazing cows and sunsets, which strive for evocative environmental atmospherics but come off as borrowed gestures devoid of real heart. There isn’t desperation or hothouse passion to the proceedings, just a familiar languorousness pockmarked with faux-poetic visions of rustic beauty and decay—of Shiley poking about a cow carcass in an open field, of Julius’s slithering worms, of worn-out homes and brightly lit supermarkets—that never coalesce to create a genuine, potent sense of people trying to navigate a personal and relationship crisis. Instead, the film resonates only as a series of second-hand pretenses borrowed from countless indies (and the aforementioned David Gordon Green debut in particular), all of which have been designed to feign complexity before Mader can resolve his various mini-dramas with offhand (read: unbelievable) simplicity. Acceptance and maturity come easy for Julius (jumping out of a moving car, and then having a conversation with dad about Russian weight-lifters, is just about all it takes), but there’s no air to Five time Champion, buried as it is beneath metaphor-laden preciousness.