'Flipped' Mostly Hits Right Notes in Familiar Tune
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Flipped" is the story of Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) and Julie (Madeline Carroll), who meet in second grade when Bryce's picture-perfect Eisenhower-era nuclear family moves in across the way from Julie's slightly messier home. They're in second grade, but Bryce is convinced immediately that Julie's a pest who can't see that her affections are unrequited; Julie is convinced that Bryce is walking around with her first kiss despite his mysteriously not seeming to know it. And so we witness both sides of their interactions and reactions, jumping from 1977 to 1963, with each of them narrating their side of the story.
The approach in "Flipped" (directed by Rob Reiner) is charming -- a mash-up of "Stand by Me" and "Rashomon," as Bryce explains Julie's obliviousness to his distance and Julie explains Bryce's obliviousness to her affections. The retro-nostalgic tone is also cute, if perhaps cloying -- Reiner wrung box-office and critical raves out of his similarly set "Stand by Me," and one can hardly fault him for going with what he knows works.
At the same time, it's interesting to note that Wendelin Van Draanen's 2001 novel, adapted for the screen by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman, is set in the present day. It's not that the novel is clicking with texting and e-mails, but there is, for one example, mention made of Bryce's grandfather, when he moves in with the family, losing himself in Tom Clancy novels. (And Bryce refers to Julie as "a stalker." Did they even have that term in 1963?)
Reiner's decision to put "Flipped" into the way-back machine may be his way of looking, as he's said in prerelease interviews, at a time of "innocence." But as Bryce and Julie move through a world where there are nothing but white people on screen and almost nothing but black people on the soundtrack (plus, of course, the Everly Brothers), it's hard not to ask why Reiner didn't try to find the innocence in the present lives of teens as opposed to ginning up yet another nostalgia trip never-was/Hollywood vision of Norman Rockwell America to soothe and comfort audiences.
But only a horrible cynic would ask something like that out loud, and especially so when McAuliffe and Carroll are on-screen acting their tiny hearts out. Bryce comes to understand the cracks and chasms behind his family's façade, while Julie puts it all on the line to try to save a local sycamore tree from destruction. And in time, with some coaxing from his grandfather (John Mahoney, reliable as ever), Bryce realizes that Julie may not be an oddball pest but, rather, the kind of person you meet only once in a lifetime. This, naturally, occurs as Julie, changed by experiences like meeting her developmentally disabled Uncle Daniel (Kevin Weisman, in a painfully broad performance) realizes that Bryce may not, in fact, be all that special.
And all of this is handled with adroitness by Reiner, and brought to life by his talented actors, and beautifully shot by Thomas Del Ruth, with Marc Shaiman's delicate, wistful score between the "Time-Life Sounds of the Baby Boom" singles on the soundtrack. "Flipped" is handsomely made and well-intentioned, but it feels a little too perfect, like a smile artificially held for a photograph so long it's on the verge of shattering into a face-cramping moment of agony. (The irony is that "Flipped" is coming out so soon after "Ramona and Beezus," a film based on a book series begun in 1955 that manages to adroitly leap to the present day. Both films have different kinds of artifice, to be sure, but I know which one sat better with me.)
And again, this all seems uncalled for, everything considered, as the warm waves of nostalgia -- the true opiate of the masses -- obliterate all objections and rational thought. "Flipped" is sweet and something like honest, heartfelt and phonily sincere, and -- if the PBS-organized preview audience I saw it with is any guide -- it will be, at risk of coarse honesty, catnip for old people. Reiner made his name as a mainstream director with "Stand by Me." "With "Flipped," he seems to be shooting to reclaim a little bit of that glory, even if it is by standing still.