'Josh and S.A.M.' is thoughtful, wrenching and fun


Now that movie audiences have been successfully ruined by the menu of junk that's been served up by Hollywood so relentlessly over the past few years, filmmakers have a difficult time working serious themes into their material.

Everything has to be fun and games, and filmmakers respond to this demand by shrewdly designing hybrids, of which Billy Weber's debut film, "Josh and S.A.M.," is a prime example.

Some hybrids work: Jerry Zucker successfully got guys to see his love story, "Ghost," by adorning the movie with action-movie special effects and some irreverent Whoopi Goldberg humor. Others don't work, such as Richard Donner's attempt to make a statement about child abuse in "Radio Flyer" by employing elements shamelessly appropriated from "E.T."

"Josh and S.A.M" is an observant, often wrenching story of troubled children from troubled families, where mom is off doing her thing (often with a new man) and dad is mostly distant (often with his second family). Frank Deese's script is essentially a low-keyed character study of children with problems -- New Age problems, if you will, requiring a special kind of resilience and creativity.

Unfortunately, the makers of "Josh and S.A.M." apparently didn't have the confidence to tell this story straight, but turned it into another '90s film fantasy, full of improbabilities -- another fantasy that asks us to suspend our disbelief. In other words, you have to check your brain at the concession stand.

The only problem in this case is that "Josh and S.A.M." is no "Dennis the Menace." It deserves better. It should be consumed straight, even by children -- and without the soda-pop chaser designed to make it go down easier.

Still, a lot of Mr. Deese's reality-based points manage to show through -- which may explain why the film was bumped from its original summer opening to a more serious fall date. (This hard-luck movie can't win: Last summer, it would have been overshadowed by the season's pop stuff; now it has to contend with "A Perfect World" and "Mrs. Doubtfire.")

Mr. Weber, a former film editor, coaxes amazing performances from the young actors playing the title characters -- a most accomplished Jacob Tierney as 12-year-old Josh Whitney, and Noah Fleiss, introduced here as his 8-year-old brother, Sam. They live in California with a mother (Joan Allen) who is busy with her new French boyfriend (Ronald Guttman); so busy, in fact, that it looks as if Josh and Sam will end up living in Florida with their dad (Steven Tobolowsky), whose new family includes two stepsons who like to torment Josh, calling him "homo" because he's not good at sports. Poor Sam, who is good at sports, is already a seriously introverted and despondent kid. Frightened, he sides with his new bullying brothers against Josh.

On a trip back to California to say goodbye to their mom before moving in permanently with dad, Josh decides to move into action. When their plane is forced to land in Dallas, Josh decides it's time to make their escape, getting Sam to cooperate by telling him that he is really a creation of a secret government program. Their parents, he says, have donated Sam to the Pentagon to be programmed as a "future warrior" and his name is an acronym, standing for Strategically Altered Mutant. They decide to live by their wits.

First, they must escape to Canada, where they will be safe from not only the U.S. government but also their parents. They'll need a car.

By now, "Josh and S.A.M." has evolved into a wild road movie, spinning out of control, with the boys stealing a snazzy red sports car from a guy (Chris Penn) they meet at a high-school reunion in the hotel where the airline put up everyone. They convince him that he is Josh's long-lost father before flattening him and taking his car.

Then they meet a hitchhiker (Martha Plimpton), who grumbles but becomes a willing accomplice. Together, they make a strange but satisfying family unit. Which is what this movie is about -- a child's need for security.

Like most hybrids, "Josh and S.A.M." is a curiosity that will probably please no one. The thinking audience for which it was conceived will most likely stay away, while the kids and families for which it was carefully redesigned will find it too serious and maybe highbrow in its thoughtful consideration of the kind of stress that children routinely face.


"Josh and S.A.M."

Starring Jacob Tierney, Noah Fleiss, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Joan Allen

Directed by Billy Weber

Released by Columbia/Castle Rock

Rated PG-13


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