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January 26, 2018

'Surviving the Wild' will make you laugh, laud and lament

Review: The legendary Jon Voight and young Aidan Cullen have produced something moving and memorable

If Oscar-bait "movies with a message" and mindless blockbusters filling the screens at local cineplexes makes you dismayed that Hollywood can't seem to produce small, moving, memorable movies anymore, take heart.

"Surviving the Wild" is a jewel of a film that the whole family can enjoy.

The film opens with Gus (Jon Voight) telling his 13-year-old grandson Shaun (Aidan Cullen), while looking at the fruits of a fishing trio, that the fish Shaun had caught "was bigger than you" and a "big son of a b**ch." He goes on to add, "Your mom used to scold me for teaching you bad words – but what's a grandpa for?"

It would be unremarkable, except for two things: The acting of Voight and Cullen – and that it occurs during Gus' funeral.

Yes, Shaun has a guardian angel, and it just so happens to be his grandfather, who only he can see and hear. This sets up many comedic situations, in which Shaun, who is devastated by the loss of his grandfather, busts out laughing at the funeral home.

A perfect example: Shaun wistfully looks at the urn containing his grandfather's ashes and says, in a somber tone, "It's hard to imagine him in there. He was so big and tall and now..."

"Now I'm just as ash-hole," Gus says, causing Shaun to suddenly smile and laugh - and his dad to wonder what his son is doing laughing at his grandfather's funeral.

There are many moments like that. They are awesome. Because at its heart, this is a story of a boy's special bond with his grandfather. There is a subplot in which he is trying to get his divorcing parents – played by Jamie Kennedy and Vail Bloom, who both do fine in their roles – back together, and others involving Gus' relationship with Shaun's mom and Shaun's relationship to both his parents.

Compelling stuff comes in the interactions between a grandfather and grandson.

Consider a powerful moment, after Shaun had managed to steal Gus' ashes so they can be laid to rest in the wild rather than cooped inside a house, because Rachel, Gus' daughter, wants "to keep him close."

The most memorable stuff happens after Shaun is able to put his plan in action to spread Gus' ashes on his favorite mountaintop.

"Not only are you lying and breaking the law, but you're playing with [Shaun's parents'] feelings. You're a manipulative little son of a gun – and that's why I love you," Gus says. 

The film reaches it's apex when Shaun is alone with his dog and wonders out loud if the Gus he is seeing is a ghost or an angel or just something in his mind. He thanks his grandfather for teaching him how to be a man when his parents wouldn't or couldn't, and it is enough to bring a tear to the most jaded eye.

Before the film is only a third over, there are parents to reconcile, whitewater rapids to traverse and two crazed hillbillies to evade.

Having this story take place in the wild gives it special impact. It just wouldn't have worked in a place surrounded by steel and concrete.

But the real star here is Voight, who takes what could be sappy role and elevates it with gravitas and humor. He is magnificent.

Not far behind is Cullen, who Voight has compared to a young Mickey Rooney. High praise indeed, but his extremely compelling performance prevents it from being hyperbole.

"Surviving the Wild" is an outstanding film, and the kind Hollywood should be making more of.