Movie Review: “Little Red Wagon”

ImageYou don’t think of empathy as something you have to teach your child. They’re born with it, you’d guess. Or life itself will teach it to them.

Laurie Bonner (Anna Gunn) didn’t take that chance. A widow and a single mother of two, she knew others had it even rougher than her, so she encouraged that trait in her kids.

“One day you’re just living your life, and then BAM, you’re struggling.”

One took it to heart. Another, Zach, started filling a little red wagon with hurricane relief supplies.

And as “Little Red Wagon” makes perfectly clear, for Zach (Chandler Canterbury), that was just the beginning.

“Inspired by a true story,” “Little Red Wagon” is about a boy of about 10 who, after joining his family in making fearful preparations for Hurricane Charley, thought those supplies should go to the city that actually got hit when Tampa dodged that 2004 bullet.

With the help of his sister (Daveigh Chase), he hands out flyers soliciting supplies. They collect wagonload after wagonload. Mom is impressed, then overwhelmed and even a little dismayed, as this effort grows and grows.

But she doesn’t reign in this altruistic impulse. She takes Zach to a hurricane evacuation shelter where he sees his efforts pay dividends. Zach sees kids who have lost everything and figures out they would feel better about their plight if they just had a toy and a few necessities they could call their own.

Zach, and Laurie, learn about non-profit 501-C3 status. They discover generous merchants and other charities that want to help. Next thing you know, backpacks full of goodies (“Zach Packs”) are filling the shelters all along the long swatch of Charley’s path.

Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan (“Courage Under Fire”) balances this uplifting tale with the story of former neighbors of Zach’s (Frances O’Connor and Dylan Matzke) who find themselves homeless, on the downward spiral of losing job, home, of being robbed in shelters and even dumpster-diving and shop-lifting to survive. It’s a sober object lesson even if Duncan fails to properly flesh that out and tie them back into Zach’s story.

There’s also the subplot of the sister who finds her life hijacked by her do-gooder brother’s angelic impulses and growing TV news fame. Like the homeless parallel family, this conflict is needed in the story but too watered down to pay big emotional dividends.

But the performers are, to a one, quite good. And young Canterbury gives us several lump-in-your-throat moments as the innocent Zach asks why he can’t try to do this or that, and Gunn gets to show us the face of every parent forced to walk the walk after talking the talk. They make “Little Red Wagon” more quietly inspiring than its modest budget would suggest.

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language

Cast: Chandler Canterbury, Anna Gunn, Frances O’Connor, Daveigh Chase

Credits: Directed by David Anspaugh, written by Patrick Sheane Duncan. A Phase 4  release.

Running time: 1:42

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