Miles directed by Nathan Adloff, which had its New York premiere at NewFest and won the Audience Award at Outfest Los Angeles, is again in competition for another audience award. Though I haven’t seen many of the films at NewFest and cannot make any comparisons which I am always loathe to do anyway, I will discuss why the film might win. Adloff and his cast were absolutely exceptional in their rendering of the senior year life and times of Miles Walton. Indeed, as the film continues to screen at festivals it surely will add others to the growing list of awards it has already taken in.
The film cannot be easily categorized except to say it is a family film without the vapid script, poorly drawn characterizations and twisted, simple plots which often appear in family films. To its credit it lacks their usual artificial, sterile dialogue and unclever scenes between and among teens and their parents. Miles, written by Adloff and Justin D.M. Palmer is inspired by Adloff’s life and has an authenticity which resonates because of its unabashed sensitivity, general good will and kindness. These elements are pitted against the backdrop of injustice, selfishness, hypocrisy and institutional cowardice.
Adloff presents true-to-life situations with particular characters that are interesting even when they act villainous. The arc of events is surprising and the film manages to be uplifting without the usual, gloppy, open-ended conclusion that is predictable and forgettable.
Perhaps it is because of the demonstrated love in the relationships beautifully written and presented: between Miles Walton (Tim Boardman’s acting choices are measured with mature grace and likability), and his mother Pat Walton (a terrific portrayal by Molly Shannon who is just fantastic), and certain of his teachers, for example, his coach Leslie Wayne (Missi Pyle is solid and heroic without being unctuous).
Perhaps it is because of the amazing performances Adloff teases out of his able cast of secondary characters, for example Superintendent Lloyd Bryant (a surprising, fine turn by Paul Reiser), and the Principal Mr. Wilson (Ethan Phillips would be hired on the spot in any NYC high school; he is that believable).
The plot of Miles is not only “one for the road,” but it is a knockout for those who are moved by poignancy and emotional power. In his senior year in 1999 on the cusp of Social Media and the burgeoning fun of AOL, chat rooms, and heavy PC monitors, Miles has befriended an online kid who is gay. In his suburban high school Miles is the only one with the courage and humanity to have come “out of the closet.” Adloff doesn’t make this an issue in Miles’ life and we realize that he is the “gay boy next door type,” in short, someone who perseveres, someone who doesn’t feel sorry for himself and someone who is flexible enough to get along with everyone.
Whether his period of angst occurred in junior high school, by his senior year, Miles has reconciled himself with himself and it is the mature, down-to-earth Miles who has ambition to go to college and become a filmmaker; we understand that he has allowed an artistic perspective to shape his life and it is this that is propelling him out of the dangerous shoals of small town life. Another reason we understand that Miles appears balanced about his being gay is because Miles has taken solace in his dream that he will go to Chicago, be with his friend and connect with others in pursuit of his career ambitions. We learn that his online friend who still hasn’t come out to his parents has been a sounding board for Miles and vice-versa.
Then the heavy hand of fate strikes and Miles’ dreams receive a death blow when his father abruptly dies. He and his mother are left alone to face his empty college bank account which his dad used to buy his young mistress, a sports car. The irony is not lost on us that the mistress persuaded his dad to give her the means to speed out of town as she wants, while Mr. Walton callously left his own son foundering in the mud flats of nondescript, uneventful suburbia where his life has dead-ended.
The conflict appears simple: Miles must get an athletic scholarship for college since his grades are not in the top one percent of his class. What is impossible is the path he chooses to accomplish this: he elects to play his best sport volleyball which is the only athletic scholarship available to him. However, since his high school has no boy’s volleyball team, he must try-out for the girls’ team, excel and help the team achieve a winning record. The host of issues he must deal with are legion. But Adloff and his writing partner keep it fresh and unexpected for the problems arise not from the individuals we would anticipate he must confront but others.
Human nature, opposition and injustice settle in. Miles, with his mother’s guidance (despite her own travails), must slap down each of these obstacles. Pat Walton and Miles encourage one another and we note her determination to help him pursue his exploits, win the scholarship and get to Chicago. But life is surprise and this is not a shallow feel-good film. Pat Walton and her son are thwarted at every turn.
Adloff has created conflicts that we can identify with. He has created empathetic characters and a thorny situation which allow him to raise the stakes to a high level. How he brings his hero through devastation and heartbreak, is realistic and satisfying. By the conclusion of the film, the director, Shannon and Broadman have hooked into our hearts and do not let go until the credits roll.
This is a must-see film for every parent who wishes to see their son or daughter flourish despite the wrenching tear of the separation that inevitably must ensue as the teenager goes on to make his or her way in the world. Miles is a loving heartbreak of a film which perhaps brings a bit of healing as well. The themes of accepting transitions, manifesting temperance in the face of injustice and relying on one’s inner strength to solidify one’s identity, even when one knows one is alone, contribute to making Miles satisfying.