ALMOST KINGS is a dark coming of age film. It tells the story of Ted Wheeler (Lorenzo James Henrie), a freshman in high school, who is eager to get in good with his older brother, Truck (Alex Frost) and his friends. They are, of course, the popular kids, football players and members of their own quasi-gang, The Kings.
In the film’s opening moments, we glimpse the brothers’ relationship. We see the genuine admiration in Ted’s eyes when Truck gives him a pocket knife for his birthday. When they get home, we meet their father, the drunken, nasty, wheelchair-bound Ron (Billy Campbell). That night as Ted is preparing for bed, Truck’s friends show up to cart him off. Curiously, he asks for Ted’s middle-school yearbook which he gives up with no questions asked. Truck thanks him and sneaks out. At an alcohol fueled party a few days later, Ted finds out why they needed his yearbook. They plan on rating all of the girls from 1 to 10. The rating assigned to the girl is also the amount of points received by any of the guys who can sleep with her. They get double if she is a virgin. Ted is drunk, we gather for the first time, and wants to impress his brother. He demands to be part of the game. He quickly begins to realize that he has made a mistake and is faced with the moral conundrum of whether or not to stand up to his brother.
Director Phillip G. Flores does a commendable job with the material. He doesn’t let the language or sexuality become gratuitous. He avoids most of the pitfalls that often ruin independent films, such as jarring camera movements and overused close-ups. He shows potential for becoming a great filmmaker.
The writing overall was pretty good. The dialogue was terse and genuine. This was a huge plus for me because I am often taken out of movies about adolescents by dialogue that seems laughably inauthentic. I also really enjoyed watching the characters unfold. Truck at first seems charming and good-natured. We see that in some ways he was forced to grow up before his time. He takes care of both his younger brother and invalid father. He has a baby on the way with his sweet girlfriend, Lizzie (Portia Doubleday). Though a bit immature, he seems to have his priorities in place. What I found most interesting about him was the way that he is at once Ted’s protector and the ultimate bad influence. Notice how in scenes not all that far apart, he first urges Ted to stay away from parties and keep his mind on school then not long after, he buys him vodka and encourages date rape. It was a wise move on Flores’s part, to have his audience learn of Truck’s dark side along with the truly good-hearted, Ted. This way, it seems all the more shocking. Ted’s growth in the film is as plausible as it is compelling to watch. He idolizes his older brother and wants nothing more than to be like him. But, when Truck’s wholesome veneer starts to slip, Ted’s struggle between his conscience and loyalty to his brother begins to tear him apart.
The problems I had with the film were the elements that seemed way over the top. The first thing that seemed out of place was the scene where Ted is fully initiated into the gang. This comes at a time in the film when he is starting to realize the gravity of his situation. I found it a bit unbelievable that he would still have been as gung-ho about joining as he was. Also, the initiation “ceremony” was incredibly silly. My second problem was the end of the film. Ted receives an ominous phone call which prompts a big showdown with his brother. This entire sequence of events felt like it belonged in another film entirely. Truck’s actions seem too dark, even for him and the violence of the final scene was bewildering and unnecessary. The movie would have benefitted from a more understated ending, maybe a conversation where something is actually resolved.
Overall, Almost Kings is definitely worth watching. It seemed to play as a negative image of the “high school kid on a quest to lose his virginity” movie that we are so used to seeing. It featured most of the conventions of comedies like Superbad and American Pie, but was able to weave them deftly into a taut dramatic film. The performances by the young cast are strong and expert use is made of the few recurring locations. Finally, I feel it is important to mention the film’s attention to detail. Things like how the older kids refer to Ted as “Little Truck”, struck me. Anyone who is a younger sibling knows that the automatic nickname bestowed upon them will be “Little” whatever, usually their surname. To some kids that maybe the greatest honor in the world, to others, not.