A lot of contemporary movies picture American suburban life as banal, hypocritical, and morally bankrupt, a deceitful place where manicured landscapes and plastic surgery cover up empty, desperate realities. But in Rob Reiner's newly released Flipped, the American 'burbs provide the environment in which fragile, honest goodness is repeatedly tested and quietly grows.
Completely devoid of special effects, violence, or sex, and without a single chase scene or exploding car, Flipped relies on old-fashioned storytelling and great acting to tell the story of a boy and girl coming of age in the suburbs.
The story begins with young Juli developing a massive childhood crush on Bryce, the dreamy-eyed new kid in the neighborhood. In spite of those eyes of his, Bryce is completely blind to her beauty, and when he finally begins to flip for her as she has for him, it's almost too late.
The families of the two protagonists are essential to the film's richness. I asked producer Rob Reiner about some of these secondary characters.
"Really, the pivotal role in the film, aside from the two kids, is the grandfather. He's the moral compass in the movie," Rob explained. "Bryce is fortunate that his grandfather comes to live with him at such a critical time, when he's 12 or 13. The old man teaches his grandson something that Bryce's own father doesn't understand: that in terms of character, you can swim out so far from the shore that you can't make it back."
Bryce's father, along with a few of his schoolmates, represents the negative polarity in the movie: outwardly successful but inwardly empty. Juli's father, in contrast, has "kept his soul," in Reiner's words, keeping his creativity alive and holding on to his love for his family, even though his lawn is full of weeds.
"The most important scene in the film, in many ways," Rob continued, "is the scene where Juli's dad takes Juli to visit his brother, her uncle, who is mentally handicapped." It's in that visit, climaxing in an embarrassing outburst in a public place, that we see the gritty courage and tough commitment that real families require.
The two mothers, each struggling with the complexities of marriage and parenthood, create one of the film's most redemptive moments: a meal where the two families come together and begin to overcome their longstanding alienation. (As many suburban families know, it can be a long walk to cross the street and meet a neighbor.)
I told Rob that I sensed a kind of understated spirituality in that dinner; it felt like a kind of communion, evoking in its humble way the epic meal in Babette's Feast. In it, people must face their false impressions of one another, and a kind of repentance begins for several of the characters.
"It really is a spiritual movie," Rob replied. "Juli has this pure love for God's creation, seen in her love for that old sycamore tree." And it shows as well in her care for some chickens, beloved byproducts of a science fair project; she calls them "my girls."
Bryce discovers that the only way to love Juli is to love what she loves, and so he is brought into Juli's spirituality through her. It's a kind of reverse Eden story: Eve coaxes Adam back into the garden he has wandered away from.
Flipped succeeds in doing something few films do without seeming schmaltzy: it captures moments of goodness. "You don't set out trying to convey goodness," Rob said. "You try to capture honesty. Because people aren't cartoons. We're all a mix. So you try to convey who a character really is with honesty. And when you do that, some goodness always shines through."
If you've been losing faith lately, wondering if all the eggs have gotten salmonella and all the beaches tarballs, take somebody you love (or would like to love) and see Flipped. And better still, make it a double or triple date, and plan to go out after seeing the movie. You'll have lots to talk about -- honest moments where goodness shines through -- which is probably the best kind of special effect anywhere.