Directed by David Anspaugh, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, starring Chandler Canterbury, Anna Gunn, Daveigh Chase, Frances O'Connor, and Dylan Matzke - Rated PG
I don't usually go for the feel-good movies, but this one really did make me feel good...
“Family friendly” is not a term that normally defines the type of films that I watch and enjoy. If you skim over my past reviews, you’ll see that I stick to a steady diet of blockbuster/sci-fi films and art house fare, with an occasional deviation. I do this because I feel like my purpose as a “critic” is to weigh in on movies I would normally seek out and like-minded individuals can use my opinions to decide what they watch (or people can just read it and tell me how wrong I am). I don’t review many family films because they are not meant for me. That said, I recently watched Little Red Wagon, directed by Indiana native David Anspaugh (of Hoosiers and Rudy fame). I checked out this inspirational, family friendly film for three reasons: the Indiana connection, my love of getting early access to films, and it sounded like an interesting story.
Little Red Wagon is about a little boy, Zach Bonner(Chandler Canterbury), in Florida who begins a charitable mission to raise awareness (and donations) for homeless children. It begins small, with Zach going door to door in his neighborhood picking up donations and hauling them away in his red wagon. Zach is helped by his teenage sister and single mom. His charitable nature eventually attracts the attention of the media and politicians, and his cause grows by leaps and bounds to the point that Zach decides to walk to the state capital. To add effect to the story, a parallel narrative follows a widowed mother and her young son as they struggle with poverty.
This is a story that could easily fall into cheesy “gee whiz!” material, but it does manage to rise above the gloss and deal with serious issues throughout. You wouldn't know that listening to the score, however. The music that accompanies this film sounds like stock music from an after school special in the 1980s. Normally a score wouldn't raise many issues with me, but the music nearly took me out of the film entirely. At some points, it even takes away the emotional impact of some scenes, as if to say, “We don't trust that you'll understand how the characters feel, so here's some music just to be safe.” It's insulting and annoying.
Little Red Wagon survives the atrocious score thanks to some truly emotional moments. The struggle between Zach's sister, Kelley, (Daveigh Chase, Donnie Darko) and mother, Laurie, (Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad”) struck me as the most real moments of the film. Kelley might come off as a selfish teenager when she complains about being forced to help out with Zach's cause, but it's not that simple. When Zach decides to walk to the capital, he doesn't seem to realize what that means for his sister and mother. He has good intentions, but it causes them to drop everything for his cause. Sure, there's always the argument that they should be charitable and stop thinking about themselves, but the reality of the situation is that most people wouldn't be happy being forced to be charitable.
The parallel storyline has the most compelling moments, though. Frances O'Connor does a fine job portraying the struggling mother as she drags her son from one terrible situation to another. It borders on melodrama, but the performances keep it afloat, particularly that of child actor Dylan Matzke. He seems so genuine when he is frightened or excited. You can't complain about melodrama when the performances add up. In fact, Matzke may have been the better choice for the lead role. Canterbury carries the film, but there are a few weak moments throughout the film. He just can't sell his excitement and disbelief like Matzke can.
These critiques don't really add up to the main purpose of the film, which is why I am not necessarily suited to write about it. But as I watched, it occurred to me that this would have been a film that could have inspired me when I was younger. This is truly a film for children because it speaks to them.
Little Red Wagon is a family friendly inspirational tale with moments of raw emotion. The music nearly deflates many moments of the film, but it makes it through. This is still not the type of movie I would normally get excited about, but it is a moving piece of cinema and should be extremely effective with its core demographic.