Standing Up makes a strange notch on the belt of director DJ Caruso, who began his career with tough-minded crime thriller The Salton Sea before moving on to shepherd Shia LaBeouf's mainstream turn in Disturbia and Eagle Eye. Perhaps the dismal failure of I Am Number Four and the social networking experiment Inside have sent him scampering to an inoffensive, amiable kids' film with a worthy message but little in the way of dramatic stakes.
The film is based on Brock Cole's 1987 hot-button novel The Goats, about an annual camp hazing tradition where the socially awkward are singled out, stripped naked and left on an island to fend for themselves. It's a story set in that critical time when pre-teens are just learning about who they are, and figuring out their own strengths and how to fend for themselves. With his dorky round closes, Howie (Chandler Canterbury) looks like a young Harry Potter clone, while Grace's (Annalisse Basso) crimson hair belies her fiery personality. But it didn't start that way. The shy and insecure Grace is a victim of her campmates just like Howie, deserted on Goat Island, and it takes some convincing to get her to flee the campgrounds and find shelter elsewhere.
Basically starting from scratch, the kids hit the city streets and turn to whatever means necessary to secure clothing, food, and a place to stay until hooking up with Grace's busy mother (Radha Mitchell) in three days. Although he doesn't look it, Howie is a tough kid who balks at the idea of ever returning home. He's more suited to the way of the streets, stealing whatever they need when left with no other options, although he's quick to keep a running tally for reimbursement later. Grace is a girl who seems beaten from the start, destined for a life always being labeled as "weak" or an "outsider". Sent to camp to toughen up, Grace was begging to be picked up even before the island embarrassment, but was brushed off and told to stick it out, which has the mother racked with guilt.
Grace and Howie's various issues are treated authentically, especially her abandonment issues and his loner spirit. He encourages her to not sit around and accept the worst life has to offer, and we also see him grow into her staunch defender by taking down a bully who was getting too frisky. Adolescent hormones do come into play, but like much of the film it's pretty tame and mostly is a source of awkward humor, as one might expect from sexually inexperienced kids. Both stars give sincere, thoughtful performances that far outshine an unfortunate appearance by Val Kilmer as a drunken deputy who might've stumbled in from a different movie. Let's just say he doesn't fit at all with the film's grounded tone. There's a decided lack of tension, however, and a good deal of the book's danger is sacrificed in favor of a simpler, more accessible story. While set in the 1980’s, Caruso wisely keeps nostalgic flourishes to a minimum, helped by some beautiful cinematography by Alex Nepomniaschy.
Standing Up has its heart in the right place, and punctuates some of the same ideas seen in the recent documentary, Bully. It's a sincere and good-natured effort that could probably do with a bit more edge.