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It did the heart good to see the massive turnout for “War Eagle, Arkansas,” the premier film for this year's Little Rock Film Festival — Riverdale was so packed that roughly 150 people had to be turned away, even after the theater opened a third screen at the last minute. Fittingly, the film ended up taking home the inaugural Charles B. Pierce Award for Arkansas Film.
How much better, then, that the movie didn't suck. Indeed, it was a damn fine film, about as honest and pretty and true a love song to small town life in the Ozarks as anyone could muster. It managed to avoid going all Folksy McLeghorn on us. It managed to avoid lionizing or demonizing life in the road's wide spot. It managed to avoid self-conscious use of “y'all” and references to kudzu and lemonade. It simply was what it was, a story about friendship and the pull between dreams and limitations.
“War Eagle” is about two young men about to graduate high school. Enoch (Luke Grimes) is War Eagle High's star pitcher, yet he's insecure, mostly because he has two things star pitchers aren't supposed to have: a love of poetry and a prodigious stutter. His only friend is “Wheels” (Dan McCabe), a gawky string bean of a boy bound to a wheelchair by severe cerebral palsy. Wheels has found freedom in being completely screwed by life; he can be himself without concern for (or indeed any hope of) ever fitting in.
Pretty much all of Enoch's spare time is spent hanging out with and helping care for Wheels, and Wheels does his share in return, even managing to hook Enoch up with a local girl and pester a scout from Tennessee Southern to come watch him pitch in the regional all-star game. It's only too late that Wheels begins to realize that by giving his friend a girlfriend and a scholarship, he's also given him a way out of their friendship forever. Enoch also stands unconvinced that this path is the best for him, but is too afraid to question anyone about it, least of all his grandfather, played by the always imposing Brian Dennehy.
There's not really a weak spot anywhere in this film — solid script, good directing, some stunning shots. Everyone turns in a good performance, most notably Grimes and McCabe, who play off one another like they've been lifelong friends. Grimes himself may have a budding career as a leading man, with his combination of good looks, earnestness and craft. He's sometimes reminiscent of a young Johnny Depp, which is probably the only thing hurting him in this role: No one that good looking would have that much trouble meeting girls.
Of course having a movie set in a small Arkansas town all but guaranteed it a spot at this film festival, but it certainly had the chops to deserve the coveted opening slot. The film looks, feels and smells like an Arkansas summer. You can almost taste the lukewarm beer and smell the truck exhaust, not because “War Eagle” lays it on thick, but because it shows you everything in those hills as you've likely seen it yourself.
I called it a love song before, and that's precisely what it is, though not exactly to War Eagle or to small towns in general or to anywhere in the South. “War Eagle, Arkansas” is just one big love song to everything worth loving, particularly the hard and unlovable things.