Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/27/08 20:09:27

"A nifty twist on the superhero trend."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Norman is a nerd: skinny, weak, mild-mannered, good with computers and video equipment. His coworkers walk all over him, assuming they notice him at all. His only friend seems to be the owner of the neighborhood comic book store, who seems to barely tolerate him. They spend their hours playing what-if. What if you had superpowers? Which powers would you want?

Norman’s world of what-if explodes when he discovers someone’s gone beyond the if. It’s this turn that makes “Sidekick” such an inventive indie work. For “Sidekick” isn’t about a guy who discovers he has superpowers, but about a guy who discovers somebody else has them. How does a what-if apply here? Do you help that other person become a potential superhero? And what if that person doesn’t have the best intentions? What if he’s never shown unselfish tendencies, and he’s not about to start now?

Written by Michael Sparaga and directed by Blake Van de Graaf (both making their feature debuts), “Sidekick” has been dubbed by some as a sort of low budget “Unbreakable,” which is fair, if wildly under the mark. While M. Night Shyamalan’s moody thriller fell apart as its plot wore on, a premise in search of a workable storyline, “Sidekick” improves through every one of its later scenes, building and building to something wildly original. Sparaga’s screenplay is smart in its handling of genre expectations - just when we think it’s going to get funny, it instead gets deadly serious. And its insistence on keeping both feet grounded in reality is highly effective, the mundane reach of these characters’ desires revealing that while fanboys often dream of superheroes in the real world, the sad truth is that there wouldn’t really be much to see beyond ugly violence caused by petty desires.

We can see where things are going long before it’s spelled out for Norman (played with twitchy urgency by Perry Mucci). By the time he discovers Victor (David Ingram) has a mild form of telekinetic power, we’ve already spent plenty of time around the guy. He’s the office asshole, abusive and cocky, the sort of guy that probably used to be the high school bully, then got lucky with stock market know-how. We can tell from the start that he’s no hero (Ingram is terrific in playing up Victor’s slimiest attributes), and when comic store owner Chuck (Daniel Baldwin, of all people, and darn good in the role, too) tells Norman this is the makings of not a hero but a great supervillain, we’re not surprised.

Then again, the film, refusing to offer one-dimensional characters, gives us hope for Victor. He’s motivated by the death of a friend, a death he was unable to prevent - surely that means he has some heart, right? And doesn’t his closeness with Norman - Norman is the only person he’s ever told about his gift - indicate some kindness buried beneath the smarmy exterior?

Indeed, this complexity is what drives both characters. Victor isn’t so much a villain as a jerk who can’t see beyond his limited goals of getting rich, getting drunk, and getting laid. Norman, meanwhile, is too locked into his geeky fantasy world, obsessed by the notion of saving the world from exaggerated threats; he wants to be the plucky superhero - and his actions late in the film do make him a hero of sorts - but he fails to realize that the people who live what he believes to be better lives might not be better after all.

“Sidekick” shifts gears often, ultimately settling on an all-out thriller. Van de Graaf inventively dances around his low budget constraints, creating some highly effective shocks, while his cast never loses the heart of the material. It’s a sci-fi chiller with a decidedly personal bent. How wonderfully unexpected.

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