For Heartland showtimes and tickets, please click here.
The “coming of age” story is a staple of dramatic film, whether it is Hollywood tear-jerkers or indie film festival character studies. These types of personal films usually traffic in heady nostalgia and the bittersweet poignancy of the passage into adulthood. At the heart of nearly every coming-of-age story is a journey from the comfortable shores of childhood into the uncharted and foreboding waters of the future.
“Superior,” directed by Edd Benda, is a literal coming-of-age journey. Set in the summer of 1969, best friends Charlie (Thatcher Robinson) and Derek (Paul Stanko) are two young men from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula preparing for life after high school. Charlie, the more serious and studious of the two, is weeks away from starting college at Michigan Tech University. Derek, the dreamer (or loser, according to his father) is staring down enlisting in the Army and going to fight in Vietnam. Sensing their imminent parting of ways, the boys decide to go one final carefree adventure, a two-week, 1,300-mile bike ride around the coast of Lake Superior.
What follows is a mostly routine road-trip film. The two youths are seen biking around gorgeous scenery, taking in the sights, sharing laughs and horsing around. Derek and Charlie’s odd-couple act is jovial at first, then grows increasingly irritable as they encounter several delays and setbacks that threaten to prevent Charlie from getting home in time to register for classes. Derek, shiftless and dissatisfied, is more interested in adventure than in returning home and facing the reality of his lot in life. Along the way, the two get sidetracked a few times by the bizarre locals they meet as they trek through northern Michigan, Minnesota and Canada.
Unfortunately these odd encounters, intended to be humorous, digress into cartoonishness either due to amateur performances (some of the minor roles seem likely to have been given to friends and family rather than professional actors) or outlandish scripting. Perhaps the intention was to portray these roadside adventures through a lens of surreal nostalgia, the sort of grandiose “tall tales” that older adults tend to spin when embellishing the stories of their youth. Indeed, writer-director Edd Benda based “Superior” on the real journey taken by friends Karl Benda and Dan Juntilla more than 40 years ago. But if fantastical whimsy was the desired tone, it fails to translate well on to the screen. The awkward attempts at comedy only serve to undermine the serious tone of the film’s final act. It’s a difficult challenge, but the best coming-of-age films (such as “American Graffiti” and “Stand by Me”) manage to strike the right tension between comedy and drama. Unfortunately, the film veers a little too far into farce to properly ground the dramatic moments.
A large part of the coming-of-age journey is seeing the protagonists mentally and emotionally progress from one station to the next. In order to understand how the characters have “arrived,” it is necessary for us to understand how far they’ve come. Although the film shows the start of their physical journey, the audience is really being dropped into the emotional journey of their friendship near its end or, more accurately, at a major fork in the road.
Despite solid performances by Robinson and Stanko during the film’s emotional climax, the scene feels like a predictable afterthought due to the film’s uneven tone and shorthand character development.