MOVIE REVIEW : 'Josh and S.A.M.': An Excellent (and Real) Adventure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its first 15 minutes the thoroughly winning "Josh and S.A.M." (citywide) reveals just how painful divorce can be for children as poignantly as any movie imaginable. Joan Allen's elegant, brittle Caroline Whitney probably does love her two sons, 12-year-old Josh (Jacob Tierney) and 8-year-old Sam (Noah Fleiss), with whom she lives in California, but her top priority is to land a new husband, even if it does mean dumping them on her ex-husband Thom (Stephen Tobolowsky), who lives in Orlando with his second wife, who has two older sons by an earlier marriage.

Thom, however, is so intent upon creating in an instant one big happy family he's oblivious to how badly his stepsons are treating Josh--not helping matters, of course, is his own declaration that he's disappointed that his older son has not become a macho, athletic type. With this one-two punch Josh and--Sam too--discover just how unimportant they can be to their parents.

Is it any wonder that Josh and Sam are soon heading for the Canadian border? Not surprisingly, they're plunged into a grand adventure. What is surprising--and gratifying--is the seriousness with which writer Frank Deese and director Billy Weber take Josh and Sam and their plight.

These are real kids with real challenges to overcome in their attempt to make a new life for themselves--not the least of the obstacles is their own very different and constantly clashing personalities. Sam is a sturdy but withdrawn youngster, a terrific athlete for whom sports has proven to be an inadequate outlet for his rages.

Both boys are exceptionally bright, but the older, more intellectual Josh has developed into a master storyteller, which more often than not means that he's become simply a highly skilled liar. Indeed, he persuades Sam to take off with him by convincing his appalled younger brother that he is in fact a Strategically Altered Mutant (S.A.M.), sold to the government by his parents as a child warrior.

Along their bumpy journey they're joined by Martha Plimpton's Alison, a resourceful runaway who's just enough older than Josh to seem a woman of the world to him. What these kids encounter is too diverting and ingenious (yet persuasive) to give away. The point is that the two brothers, forced to survive by their wits, come to care for each as they perhaps never would have otherwise.

While it's true that Alison and the brothers are breathtakingly articulate, they are believable because they are so exceptionally well-written and played. By now Plimpton's skill at playing smart, independent-thinking young women is well-known, but both Tierney, a Canadian in his U.S. film debut, and Fleiss, in his feature debut, are a revelation. Their brothers are so resilient yet so vulnerable, so worthy of the affection and attention that they've been denied; the film does make you ponder about how incalculable the number of neglected kids must be.

Along with Allen and Tobolow-sky, an experienced portrayer of jerks, Chris Penn makes a strong impression as a partying drunk the boys have the misfortune of meeting in the course of their trek. "Josh and S.A.M." (rated PG-13 for kids in jeopardy) is the kind of film that's likely to appeal to those who would never dream of seeing the "Home Alone" movies.

'Josh and S.A.M."

Jacob Tierney: Josh Whitney

Noah Fleiss: Sam

Martha Plimpton: Alison

Stephen Tobolowsky: Thom Whitney

Joan Allen: Caroline Whitney

Chris Penn: Derek

A Columbia release of a Castle Rock in association with New Line Cinema presentation of a City Lights Film production. Director Billy Weber. Producer Martin Brest. Executive producer Arne L. Schmidt. Screenplay by Frank Deese. Cinematographer Don Burgess. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Jill M. Ohanneson. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Marcia Hinds-Johnson. Art director Bo Johnson. Set decorator Jemma Scarisbrick. Sound Douglas Axtell. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (for kids in jeopardy).

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