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Knuckleball (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Despite its title, it plays it enjoyably straight."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Knuckleball" is a solid little thriller that gets an occasional raised eyebrow for how ruthlessly capable its young main character can be; it makes some thematic sense at the end and has been hinted at, but, still, hmmm. That goes a bit for the plot in general, which has an awful lot of stuff that probably comes as a package more often than you'd like in real life, but seems a bit excessive for a movie.

It starts with Henry (Luca Villacis) being dropped off at his grandfather's house; he hasn't seen Jacob (Michael Ironside) much; the old man lives out in the sticks and Henry is the sort of kid who loves his phone. His parents don't have any place else to put him while they're at a funeral, though, so it's just for a few days. The trip is shaping up to be a mixed bag, between the forgotten charger, the chilly house, the chores, and, on the other hand, the discovery that Jacob played minor league baseball back in the day and might teach the kids something, but then his neighbor Dixon (Munro Chambers) stops by, and he seems kind of sketchy. A half-overheard conversation between the neighbors sounds really sketchy, and then…

Well, you can guess some of the basic shape; it's not the sort of movie built around people sitting down, having a heart-to-heart, and finding forgiveness for long-buried secrets. No, this is the sort of movie where the secrets use an axe to escape whatever cupboard they've been locked in, which is all well and good, but there aren't a whole lot of moving pieces for much of the movie. Filmmaker Michael Peterson and his co-writers have opted to keep the core very lean, and even getting to the film's 88-minutes-including-credits length means it occasionally has to be goosed a bit. It's the sort of movie where calling the cops or having some other neighbor come by may bring about enough violence to keep the viewer from wandering away but won't materially chance the course of the story; it's just keeping things moving until the big finish

When Knuckleball does click, though, it's a good sensation; there's a special tingle to watching people be observant and then act on what you've all seen, and both hero and villain are pretty good at that here. Someone may be insane, but seldom stupid, and the contest being one-on-one much of the time keeps the audience interested in how Henry can last another five minutes, as opposed to just whether he can. He is surprisingly resourceful, and willing to try to go for the kill much sooner than is often the case. The field of play is well-chosen and laid out, too - Peterson makes the cold both outside and in a factor, and it's a great horror movie house: Run down, full of stuff that, if it can't be weaponized, tells a story about Jacob and maybe why Henry's mother doesn't come back particularly often.

Luca Villacis and Munro Chambers make their characters serve as good reflections of each other, the city kid who would rather be anywhere else and the rural man who is more invested than his neighbor's loved ones. They're each going to underestimate each other, even after they each discover that the other has a similar streak of ruthlessness, and both do well to not make the rest of their characters' personalities a thin skin over the aggression that is eventually revealed. They both play well off Michael Ironside, whose Jacob is a step beyond curmudgeon, which suits him fine - he can do a broad range of gruff and hits the right one here, a fine base to build the film around.

"Knuckleball" doesn't mess around - it's focused and doesn't add a lot of excess baggage to a simple story of family secrets. It's impressively chilly, and knows how to make the jump to creepy and intense when it needs to.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32432&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/06/18 20:49:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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