Movie Review: Coming of age is rough in “Rockaway”

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“Rockaway” is an sentimental coming-of-age melodrama, a personal tale of childhood in the ’90s that never gets the cutesie and edgy blend right.

It’s an ungainly hybrid — “Stand by Me” by way of  “The Sandlot” — without the writing or performers to pull off its imitation of either.

John (Maxwell Apple) grew up idolizing his big brother Anthony (Keidrich Sellati of “The Americans”). He was John’s protector, mentor and entertainer, the adult John (Frankie J. Alvarez) remembers in voice over narration.

And in that June of ’94, they both had “high hopes of a Knicks championship, and a plan to kill a man.”

The brothers live in Rockaway and worship the Knicks, one Knick in particular — undrafted, working class hero John Starks. Even at 8, John is all about the Starks wear — jerseys, the works.

Their dad (Wass Stevens of “House of Cards”) indulges him that, and brings home basketball trading cards after work. But let the kid tear a jersey playing, or dinner not be ready from waitress Mom (Marjan Neshat of “Sex and the City 2”) and somebody’s going to get hit.

“I promise I’ll never let him touch you or hurt you again,” young teen Anthony promises his brother. He entertains the younger kid with tales of “Mr. Dooh,” animated bits of the adventures of something that goes down the toilet.

And Anthony keeps John on task with “The Plan.” It involves tennis balls and a busted light bulb in the basement. It’s his plan for killing their brute of a father.

Interrupting their “You and Me Against the World” reverie is a gang of nearby kids they throw in with. From the friendly and unrealistically nurturing Billy (Harrison Wittmeyer) to the mouthy and delusional Sal (Colin Critchley), Brian (Tanner Flood) to tough runt Dom (James DiGiacomo), they’re the sort that summer bonding over baseball, The Knicks, pranks and girls are made of.

At least in the movies.

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There’s little new under the sun in genre pictures of this type, even mash-ups that involve a plan to commit murder (under-planned and played down). Writer-director John J. Budion may have intended this to be a personal memoir with an edge — with violence, the threat of greater violence, profanity. But even the edgier stuff feels pre-ordained and pre-digested.

The details of “coming of age” don’t change — girly magazines, flirting, standing up to bullies — even if the music does (hip hop, mostly). The NBA Finals that year had the lads’ attention, but were infamously interrupted by the most widely televised low-speed Bronco chase in history.

For all its dark intent, “Rockaway” settles into something more like “The Sandlot” without the laughs — or James Earl Jones — even though a character references “Stand By Me” to invite that comparison. This isn’t on those films’ level in any regard.

The kids aren’t a sparking crowd, a nice moment here and there but to a one their performances are pretty flat. Even punch lines are delivered in a rote monotone that suggests child actors with no flair for comedy, or one needing another take or two (low budget films don’t have that luxury) to “nail it.”

“I’m a talker. Most of the time, I don’t need somebody to talk to.”

“Hey Mom, guess what we did today?”

“Made a three point shot?”

“Saw BOOBIES!”

Budoin ambitiously adds animation, fantasy sequences where Anthony becomes a superhero, Dom grows a cinderblock for a fist and John Starks morphs into a rocket who can take little John away from his troubled family.

The script isn’t scintillating, and the attempts at “edge” are overwhelmed by efforts to rub that edge off. But the casting — of the adults, only Stevens makes an impression — which could have rescued “Rockaway,” or at least rendered it more watchable, is where Budion’s film fizzles.

Set your tale in New York, shoot in a city with access to the cream of America’s acting classes, and this was all you could attract? Kids who can’t hit a punchline with a cinderblock for a fist?

That’s a sign from above, that you screenplay needs more polish before showing it to casting directors.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, alcohol abuse

Cast: Keidrich Sellati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Marjan Neshat, Sophia Rose, Harrison Wittmeyer, Nolan Lyons, Colin Critchley, Tanner Flood, Wass Stevens

Credits: Written and directed by John J. Budion.  A Paladin release.

Running time: 1:24

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