What a difference a title makes, right? I mean, who’s going to buy tickets to a screen romance titled “Holding Pattern.”
This thin, slow Jake Goldberger dramedy sat in cinema limbo until somebody had the bright idea of re-titling it “Almost Friends.” That and the fact that star Freddie Highmore landed a new TV series (“The Good Doctor”) to replace the one (“Bates Motel”) that he was in when he filmed this back in 2015 made this one worth releasing.
Charlie (Highmore) is a young man adrift. He’s made a career out of working at the local revival cinema, never moved on when he should have, never finished his education, never lived up to whatever promise he had. He still lives at home with Mom (Marg Helgenberger) and her second husband, still puts in the big brother time to his much-younger sibling.
He can’t even get up the nerve to flirt with “the only girl I’ve ever felt charming around.” That would be Amber (Odeya Rush), cute barista at the hapless (not in a funny way), hip Calf-Fiend coffee shop.
But his badgering pal Ben (Haley Joel Osment) finally prompts some action. And that’s when Charlie’s safe, “holding pattern” of a life breaks formula.’
Because Amber is deeply involved with vain, egotistical college track star Brad (Taylor John Smith). It’s just that Charlie’s awkward, say-the-wrong-things charm earns her attention. Charlie’s gift for stumbling into saying the wrong thing puts him on the spectrum of his “Good Doctor” character, who is actually autistic.
At least Charlie has Heather (Rita Volk) to tell his troubles to.
“Our mothers met in Lamaze class. It’s an eternal damnation kind of thing.”
And he’s got a talent, which Amber slowly drags out of him.
“Can you cook?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
Goldberger’s script hangs on a couple of Big Secrets — his and hers — revealed in the middle acts. And it lives or dies on any sparks the two leads set off, which are few in number.
There must have been an alarming moment in the editing process when a scene involving the drunken lout of a cousin (Jake Abel) Amber lives with goes on a date with the too-sharp-for-him Heather turns out to be funnier, more romantic, more honest, more heartfelt in the writing and playing than anything the younger, no-more-attractive leads can manage.
The Big Reveals don’t knock the viewer for a loop, not when we ponder the reasons Osment (“The Sixth Sense”) was cast as Ben. A side story about Charlie’s no-good hustler dad (Christopher Meloni) adds an arc to the idea that Charlie will break out of his comfort zone, but adds no real interest to the film.
The Israeli actress and “Goosebumps” alumnus Rush seems to get her best shots in movies about this size (“The Bachelors,” “The Hunter’s Prayer,” “Lady Bird”). The one-time child-star has yet to show us she’s much more than an exceptionally voluptuous pair of lips.
Highmore (“August Rush,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is managing the transition from child star to adult roles just as tentatively. His agent is smart to point him at TV, where his low-heat style registers better over the course of longer form storytelling.
Thus, we have stars who aren’t quite up to breaking the “Holding Pattern” that Goldberger’s script puts the movie in. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall that day he watched the Cousin Jake/Heather date scene cut together and realized, “Well, shoot. THERE’s my movie.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations, alcohol abuse
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Odeya Rush, Haley Joel Osment, Marg Helgenberger, Christopher Meloni, Rita Volt, Jake Abel
Credits:Written and directed by Jake Goldberger . A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:40