Cop Car: Kevin Bacon excels in surprising film

Now and then, a movie works better on screen than its marketing promises.

Advertisements for Cop Car suggest the moviemakers combine the magic of Stand By Me with the exaggeration of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry to create a yarn about a car chase that creates a coming-of-age experience for two boys. As predictable as this sounds, Cop Car offers more than repetitive plot origins. Rather than limit the story to routine complications, writers Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford embed the narrative with meaningful layers of loneliness, desperation and surprise. They use a familiar plot to frame an original story of disconnected children who want to do something that people notice. And they deliver quite a thrill ride, too.

The plot is simple. Two 10-year-old boys run away from home in a small town in Colorado. As they wander an open field — in a casual, revealing conversation to introduce the backstory — they discover an empty cop car. When they accidentally find the keys, they can’t think of a better way to start their new adventure than to drive away. The problem is the car belongs to a mysterious sheriff who must get rid of one dead body while trapping another in the trunk. As the boys experience the complications, they begin to wonder if real life may be more challenging than fantasy. Could situations they create actually become more severe than the conditions that prompted them to leave home?

Watts and Ford carefully develop the boys’ journey through a series of small discoveries. With each turn — from the unwanted intervention of an innocent bystander to the sloppy efforts of the sheriff — the creators reveal something new about the boys. In the way that Steven Spielberg can capture the pressure of domestic uncertainty on children, director Watts inspires young actors James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford to play for real, never permitting them to get theatrical, consistently guiding them to react in natural ways. The actors make us believe this big event could actually happen by keeping their reactions small. Even when the suspense builds in the final third of the film, Watts doesn’t let the dramatics cross the line of credibility. Freedson-Jackson and Wellford make every moment work.

Kevin Bacon adds the sheriff to his list of character roles that define a rich career on film. This law officer with questionable intentions demonstrates how the actor continues to grow on screen. Without a big speech to deliver, a major climactic moment or scenery to chew, Bacon builds the character through small moments of observation and revelation. With focused energy — as he plays off the boys’ sense of wonder — he paints a cynical picture of how dreams can disappoint. Bacon gives the film its foundation in a subtle portrayal that manages to make a negative character noticeably sympathetic.

Hopefully, the routine advertisements for Cop Car won’t stop people from taking a chance on the film. While it may sound like a typical summer adventure, a lot more happens on the screen. This visit with two interesting boys gives us plenty to think about.

Film Nutritional Value

Cop Car

* Content: High. Director Jon Watts uses a conventional narrative to present a compelling coming-of-age story.

* Entertainment: High. Despite the simplicity of the story, the film never feels predictable, and offers quite a thrill ride.

* Message: High. As shallow as the premise may sound, the movie delivers a touching message of what kids will be do to be noticed.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk as a family about the need for family connection is worth the time.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt a meaningful family conversation about relationships, changes and needs.

(Cop Car is rated R for “language, violence and brief drug use.” The film runs 86 minutes. It is opening in theaters, On Demand and on iTunes.)

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets