by David Cornelius
On paper, “Always Will” comes across like a thrills-free retread of “The Butterfly Effect” (which itself was a cheap retread of dozen “Twilight Zone”-style time travel stories). In reality, however, “Always Will” is a great little film, vastly more emotionally powerful than that Ashton Kutcher chiller. There’s an honesty at work here that makes the “what if?” ideas at work soar, and its portrait of youthful innocence and the pains of the teen years is, for a change, both sincere and remarkably genuine.That realism comes from the movie’s key making-of gimmick: a few years back, writer/director Michael Sammaciccia returned to his home town of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, where he formed an after-school project for students at his old elementary and high schools. The simply titled “Film Club” wound up making an entire feature film over the course of the 2004-2005 school year, with kids working on all aspects of moviemaking.
"Both on screen and off, a terrific achievement."
A key decision here was to fill the cast exclusively with students from Upper Darby High and Hillcrest Elementary, meaning the main characters were played by performers who - gasp! - were actually the same age.
But here’s the thing: While the film’s history makes for a great story, that’s not all the movie is. Far from being a cheap homegrown project with a cute making-of anecdote, “Always Will” is actually a solid movie, and that’s what deserves our attention. Sammaciccia has built a coming of age tale with plenty of heart - the script is smart and touching, the direction is crisp, and yes, the performances, especially that of Andrew Baglini, are quite impressive.
The story revolves around that old notion of second chances. Long ago, three fifth-grade best pals dug up the school’s recently buried time capsule, a reaction to the fear of moving on to middle school and clinging to the past. Years later, the friends - Will (Baglini), Danny (John Schmidt), and Jacob (Mark Schroeder) - have drifted apart, as young friends tend to do.
And then Will finds the time capsule, stashed away, long forgotten. Turns out the thing has a bit of magic in it, as it allows its holder to revisit the past, but with modern memories, if only for a few moments. A change of heart in one key second from grade school winds up changing everything: when Will returns to the present, he discovers he’s now hanging out with the popular kids. He even has a spot on the football team.
You can see where this is headed. Will makes more trips back, making more changes, and with each return, he discovers what appears to be a better and better life. Girlfriend, star athlete, big man on campus. Alas, the perfect life can never be truly perfect, as the improvements in Will’s new life are offset by increasing troubles at home.
While the core story will be familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered a similar tale, Sammaciccia manages to improve on things, adding a surprising amount of intelligence to the mixture. The effects of time travel are presented in ways that actually make sense (a rarity in much sci-fi cinema), and several plot turns wind up being pleasant, thoughtful surprises that add a welcome layer of complexity to the proceedings. On a pure geek level, “Always Will” is plenty smart.
Of course, these are not Sammaciccia’s main intentions. In fact, “Always Will” may be a sci-fi film, but only technically: this is a coming-of-age story through and through. And as mentioned earlier, there’s an honesty at play throughout, and that’s where the movie hits hardest. The film gets to the heart of what it is to be young, and a story revolving around what teens believe make a “better” life has a lot to say about high school emotions. The characters and situations here feel real, adding a heft to the overall picture. Will could be any kid, really, and thanks to Baglini’s excellent performance, we can see ourselves in him.And so “Always Will” captivates, its intimate, sincere portrait of youth effortlessly drawing us in. The film is a rewarding experience not only because we get to champion the efforts of young rookie filmmakers working their hardest, but because we get to become truly involved with characters worth following. “Always Will” is what family entertainment should always be: thought provoking, involving, truthful, rich with wonderful characters.
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originally posted: 02/24/07 23:12:43