Coming-of-age stories that center on a dark secret are not exactly a novelty. Stand by Me remains one of the classics in the genre, and Grass Stains, which had its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, shows the influence of that seminal Rob Reiner film drawn from a Stephen King story. The new film stumbles in revisiting that terrain, but its fine cast and moments of power make it affecting all the same. The rising stature of leading actor Tye Sheridan (best known for his role in Jeff Nichols’ Mud and soon to be seen in a Steven Spielberg movie) should ensure a modest distribution for this uneven picture.
Grass Stains begins with voiceover narration provided by Pablo Schreiber as the adult version of Sheridan’s character, and this narration is overused throughout the film, which could be interpreted as an homage to many earlier films or as a signal of insecurity on the part of writer-director Kyle Wilamowski. Sheridan’s Conrad is living with his single mother but spends most of his time hanging out with buddies Hunter (Austin Abrams) and Tim (Ryan Lee). He is attracted to classmate Grace (Kaitlyn Dever), and she seems to reciprocate his feelings. But when he and his buddies get involved in a prank that leads to the death of Grace’s older brother, Conrad is caught in a bind, to put it mildly. He conceals his role in the prank, but it is only a matter of time until the truth comes out.
Most of the pic focuses on the budding romance of Conrad and Grace, and here it runs into problems, not so much because of Conrad’s reactions but because of Grace’s. He is believably conflicted as Grace makes most of the advances, but Grace’s character is poorly developed. One might argue that she pursues a sexual liaison to escape the grief that she is feeling, but this doesn’t register convincingly. Unfortunately, Wilamowski doesn’t convey the same intuitive understanding of Grace’s character that he shows toward the boys. Her sexual aggressiveness comes across as unfeeling, and despite Dever’s inherent appeal, we never really fathom Grace or get a sense of her emotional turmoil.
Wilamowski is more successful with the male characters. Sheridan captures all the complexities in Conrad. While Sheridan is inherently appealing, he bravely renders Conrad’s cowardice at key moments. He also nails a comic scene in which Conrad nervously shops for condoms at a convenience store. Conrad’s two young pals are equally well-played. Abrams as the thuggish Hunter creates a baby-faced villain who is undeniably charismatic as well as hateful, and when he begins to develop pangs of conscience late in the story, his transformation is thoroughly believable.
The adult actors also are excellent. Paula Malcolmson as Conrad’s clueless but caring mother has some sharp scenes late in the film, and Annabeth Gish and Bill Sage as Grace’s parents also paint three-dimensional portraits. The well-photographed North Carolina locations add texture to the story.
The somewhat vacuous teen love story too often overwhelms the moral drama that should be front and center, but when Conrad finally takes responsibility for his action, this meandering movie at last gets a grip on its deeper themes. The resolution seems honest and mature, and a brief epilogue is so powerful that it makes us forget some of the film’s earlier lapses. The emotionally devastating last line socks the whole movie home.
Production companies: Haven Entertainment, Deckplate Films in association with Bow and Arrow Entertainment and American Film Productions
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Kaitlyn Dever, Pablo Schreiber, Austin Abrams, Paula Malcolmson, Annabeth Gish, Bill Sage
Director-screenwriter: Kyle Wilamowski
Producers: Steve Olivera, Matthew Perniciaro, Kevin Mann, Michael Sherman
Executive producers: Rachel Miller, Mauricio Betancur, George Voskericyan, Juan Luna, Josh Cole, Jonathan Miller, Rick Matros, Tim Donahoe
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Maya Sigel
Costume designer: Amanda Edgerton
Editors: Julian Robinson, Michael P. Shawver
Music: Joel P. West
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Sales agent: Concourse Media