10 Years takes the edge off reunions–and memory

Cheer 10 Years first of all because it is not “dark” or “edgy.” Its premise about a ten-year high school reunion isn’t automatically promising but the genial approach by writer-director Jamie Linden and his upbeat cast becomes affecting. This is not a tragic view of early life failings, pre-mature nostalgia–or its self-protective opposite, pre-mature cynicism. The mix of stories about identifiable high-school types features some classmates who’ve done well but most who simply cope in the slow lane toward the rest of their unexceptional lives.

In Hollywood movies it sometimes helps when common folk are embodied by unique specimen. Channing Tatum anchors the film as Jake, a former jock now just beefy, but Tatum’s unassuming talent depicts a thick-necked,  lived-in body. Jake’s comfortable with himself in a Gerard Depardieu way. The reunion brings him back to the uncertainty of his teenage romance with the gorgeous Amazonian prom queen Mary (Rosario Dawson)–the only impediment to the future happiness Jake has planned with Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). Linden’s other subplots feature similarly diffident lives–sketchily, but acted with winning energy that maintains the film’s gracious humanity.

This approach deserves credit for avoiding the easy cynicism of a movie like Diablo Cody’s Young Adult which used the homecoming idea to satirize the banality of working-class habits. Cody’s script did not engage a formal reunion but reduced the situation to single character (Charlize Theron) whose unexamined psychotic resentment became the film’s sponsored critique of American small town life. Theron’s bitterness infected the dissatisfied people she sought out. But Linden (who wrote the moving We Are Marshall) seeks understanding about  how people persevere: Anthony Mackie’s simple “It didn’t take” puts deep romantic disappointment in perspective. Aubrey Plaza and Brian Geraghty play a mismatched couple who discover an affinity hidden in their own cultural shame. Oscar Isaac and Kate Mara rekindle schoolyard memories as do Max Minghella, Lynn Collins and Justin Long in a genial threesome. They all pick up where adolescence had left them stranded.

Linden’s interest in the goodness of his characters risks commercial success–and tempts media derision–precisely because it doesn’t indulge the American self-doubt that has prevailed in Hollywood since 9/11. 10 Years evaluates that doubt as hopefully as the films that star and co-producer Channing made with working-class poet Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Son of No  One and Fighting–but this time without Montiel’s angst. 10 Years recalls the good-hearted, well-acted bonhomie of Emilio Estevez’s underrated Bobby; it would make a harmonious double-bill with Joseph Kahn’s Detention, a more daring and caustic look at adolescent follies and their alarming cultural contexts.

10 Years is not the work of a satirist; Linden’s pulse is calmer than Kahn’s as seen in the sequences where Cully (Chris Pratt), a blustery white bully pretends to apologize to the nerds he hassled in high school. Cully remains a bully, which even frustrates his maternal wife Sam (Ari Graynor) who loves his boyishness. Linden doesn’t ignore the problem; he allows Cully to inflict his own pressure—even on the audience. We have to bear Cully’s boorishness, which resembles the non-judgmental honesty of a foolish Altman character who cannot be dismissed as part of our lives. The Cully-Sam subplot, in balance with the others, plants the hope that Linden might have a major film in him. The minor charms of 10 Years suggest an Altman movie made by people who grew up on John Hughes films. Cheers indeed.