The Samuel Project

It’s only two days into the San Diego International Film Festival, and I’ve seen two movies that have performances worthy of Oscar nominations. One of them is Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?  The other performance is Hal Linden (Barney Miller) in The Samuel Project. And I’m not just being biased because much of this was filmed in San Diego. Sure, it’s nice to see a high school kid (Ryan Ochoa of iCarly and Pair of Kings) drawing around Balboa Park, or to see him with his grandfather (Linden) in various beach communities. It’s a strange coincidence that Ochoa grew up in San Diego, too.

Early on, we see a single father (Michael B. Silver) that’s more interested in his job than his son Eli. Pawning him off with grandfather is a good way for him to go sell another house. The boy would rather stay home and draw, the grandfather would rather be left alone. Yet in one of many moves I like that director Marc Fusco does…it’s not like Eli is rude. He’s not sitting there playing video games pouting and ignoring his grandfather. He makes small talk, even telling him about how he wants to go to an art school. Samuel, in his gruff manner, dismisses the kids “doodling.” A teacher assigns a project to the class (with the clever lines, “The mission, should you choose to accept it…and you will, because it’s going to be your grade in this class…”). Since it’s a multi-media class, and the boy has to choose a story that has some historical significance, he decides his Samuel is the perfect person. He had watched how he runs his dry cleaning business, but it’s a visiting to a dying woman that really sparks his interest. Samuel is reluctant to talk, because he’s a Holocaust survivor, and he’d rather not think about those times. Yet when Eli makes a deal — working at the dry cleaners in exchange for hearing the story — things start falling into place. It’s adorable to watch Eli’s face, as he sees how much the customers love his grandfather. Sometimes it’s a hip woman that runs a marketing firm. Other times, it’s an old butcher that gripes about how Samuel can’t get a blood stain out of his favorite apron. That customer is played by character actor Ken Davitian (remember his funny scenes in Borat?). They’ll play chess and lovingly jaw at each other. Turns out, his son Kasim (Mateo Ariss) is a long-haired rebel that is the new student in Eli’s class. He kind of looks like Alice Cooper and Al Yankovic had a baby. The way their friendship develops reminded me of the underrated 1987 John Hughes movie called Some Kind of Wonderful. In that film, Eric Stoltz is often bugged by his dad to apply for colleges, and he’s a painter that wants to go to an art school. He ends up becoming friends with one of the bad kids at school, in hopes of winning over the cheerleader of his dreams. The Samuel Project doesn’t bother with any romances, or any of the other high school tropes. And regarding the high school portions of the movie, it was refreshing that the teacher was funny and hip. In so many movies, the teacher or principal is just a dolt getting duped by all the kids. We watch as this teacher, exhaustingly deals with kids on their cell phones or sitting in class with headphones on; yet he also seems to care about his job, and he has a few comedic moments (bugging another teacher, or student, for a cigarette; yelling at the class for not knowing Norman Lear or the show All in the Family).

It’s also refreshing that, although his dad wants him to pursue a business degree and not a pipe dream about being an artist (“so you can go around tagging half of San Diego”), it felt authentic. It wasn’t a dad screaming at his son, or the kid slamming his bedroom door and blasting his Guns ‘N Roses. Instead, they have sensible conversations about it…as well as his conversations about G ‘N R with Kasim. My friend Doug will love that they mention Kerry King of the heavy metal band Slayer. It’s one of his favorite guitarists. I preferred listening to the butcher bring up the most valuable Beatles album, with the butcher shop cover (Google it).

All the small doses of comedy worked, which is rare (how can you not laugh when Kasim is asking where Eli’s mother is, and then inquires “Are you a crack baby?”)

Another nice touch were these illustrated flourishes that sometimes take us from one scene to another. Sometimes in a film that deals with an artist, they go over-the-top with these types of techniques. It worked wonderfully here.

3 stars out of 5. Bring your Kleenex.

The Samuel Project is going to show at the Film Festival today at 2:00 p.m. (UA Horton Plaza), followed by a Q&A with the cast. If you miss it, it’ll open in San Diego next weekend at the AMC Mission Valley.