Except for the bald thing, Judge Erich Asperschlager looked a lot like Harold when he was in junior high. Seriously.
New town. New school. Bad hair day.
Bald is (mostly) beautiful.
Facts of the Case
Life was good for Harold (Spencer Breslin, The Santa Clause 2). At least, as good as it can be when you're 13 years old and going bald. Well-known and liked in his home town, everything changes for Harold when his mother (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club) gets a job in another town and they have to move. While his sister Shelly (Stella Maeve, Transamerica) fits right in at their new school, Harold's shiny pate and old man glasses make him not only a target for bullies and a sadistic gym teacher (Chris Parnell, 30 Rock), but also invisible to the girl of his dreams (Elizabeth Gillies, The Black Donnellys). The only bright spot is a kindly janitor (Cuba Gooding, Jr., American Gangster) who takes Harold under his wing.
Harold is a surprisingly charming film. It shoots for Napoleon Dynamite-levels of quirkiness and mostly succeeds thanks to a strong cast and keen self-awareness. Penned by director T. Sean Shannon (who wrote for SNL from 1996 to 2006) and the since-deceased Greg Fields (to whom the film is dedicated), the script filters the familiarity of after school special fodder like dealing with bullies and peer pressure through the eyes of a weird bald kid.
Spencer Breslin (Abigail's older brother) plays Harold, a kid who's taken the appearance, if not the place, of his absent father. With his bald head and oversized glasses, he's constantly confused for someone three or four times his age—by the doctor (Fred Willard, A Mighty Wind) who gives him an unnecessary rectal exam, the high school boy his sister is dating, and even the horny old lady next door. Of course, it doesn't help that he reads the paper after dinner, obsessively watches Murder, She Wrote, eats All-Bran for breakfast, and has bunions.
Breslin carries the film on his prematurely bald shoulders. Like a cross between Wilfred Brimley and George Michael Bluth, he strikes a young versus old balance that makes the character more than a freak. He confiscates anything thrown into his yard by the neighbor kids and tools around town on a motorized scooter, but underneath it all he's just a teenage boy who wants to be accepted. If Harold were just bald, the movie might have been stuck hitting the same note over and over. By giving the character real depth, Shannon and Breslin actually make him a compelling leading man-child.
Cromer, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., helps Harold navigate the social minefields of junior high. He's the first person Harold meets at his new school, and their unlikely friendship is as central to the film as Harold's predictable journey from outcast to hero. Gooding, Jr. and a noticeably thin Ally Sheedy (no stranger to the school outcast scene, herself) might get the most screen time, but they're just two famous faces in a cast that also includes Hairspray's Nikki Blonsky, comedian Dave Attell, and SNL alumni Rachel Dratch, Colin Quinn, and Chris Parnell. That's a lot of star power in a lot of small roles—no doubt a benefit of Shannon's tenure at Saturday Night.
Harold might be the first "bald junior high kid makes good" movie I've ever seen, but the plot feels familiar. All the school movie character types are represented: the bully, the crush, the sadistic teacher, the Greek chorus of fickle classmates. Shannon is no doubt as big a fan of '80s movies as his intended audience. When Harold's school dance humiliation turns into a chance for Karate Kid-style redemption, beating the bully in a school-wide go kart race, it's no accident. Shannon walks a fine line between homage and retread, but there are enough knowing winks to the camera to keep things leaning towards the former.
City Lights has done a nice job of presenting the film, with a sharp-looking anamorphic picture and appealing cover/menu art. There's a 5.1 surround mix, though not many scenes take advantage of it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's probably tough enough for an independent film like this to get a release, but I wish there was more to the bonus features than a four-minute red carpet premiere reel.
There's a lot about Harold to recommend it to a teenage crowd, but some of the crude humor—geared towards that demographic—falls flat. Besides a tame-ish strip club sequence, there are more than a few jokes about pedophilia, homosexuality, and even prison rape. It wouldn't have served Harold to keep it squeaky clean, but at times it exists in a weird no-man's-land between family-friendly and a Judd Apatow joint.
Harold is a comedy, but it's less about gut-busting laughs than character-driven humor and a warmth that keeps you rooting for its balding hero (and the talented young actor who plays him). Not everything is funny, and you'll see where Harold is heading long before it gets there, but if you take it as a twist on the school movie genre, T. Sean Shannon's feature film debut isn't half bald…I mean, bad.
Poor kid's had it tough enough. Not guilty.
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