It’s 1977 and Brian is 11 years old. He’s having a hard time in life: he’s picked on in his neighborhood because he’s weird and awkward, and they break his glasses and call him “Four Eyes.”
Meanwhile, his mother Helen is having difficulties of her own, as she struggles to adjust to life as a stay-at-home mom to three kids, raising them completely on her own. She doesn’t fit in with the other mothers and feels isolated and depressed, which manifests as impatience and irritation. But when conflict comes to a head for Brian, Helen must rise to the occasion and help Brian stand up for himself — in the only way she knows how.
Written and directed by Michael Clowater, this short comedy-drama takes place in 1970s suburbia, and it’s rife with fantastic period detail and mores: kids roam freely in neighborhoods on their bikes, talk about the awesome new movie Star Wars and even the “four eyes” taunt seems specific to the late 70s and early 80s.
In many ways, the era of the story deeply influences the style of the film. There’s a warm, burnished, textured look to the camera and photography, and a loose-limbed ambling quality to the editing and movement as if life in the suburbs moves at its own pace. The approach gives breathing room for viewers to really get to know the character, and the understated, dry humor lands naturally, without being over-forced.
The writing has deep empathy for all its characters, aware of how they don’t fit in and how they struggle in their worlds. Helen can’t quite fake the blithe happiness of the other housewives around her and is frustrated by her life and the aggravations that keep popping up; Brian is targeted for his own vulnerability. They’re lost in their own problems, which affect their relationship with one another.
The performances likewise are deeply honest and unafraid of difficult, thornier emotions. Helen can be abrasive and frustrated with her children, and she doesn’t naturally possess the maternal softness of a typical sitcom mom. Tough-minded and no-nonsense, actor Sprague Grayden deftly portrays her escalating frustration with her role as a suburban mom, which comes to a head with Brian’s glasses. He breaks them, then loses them, and with no father in the house, she’s on her own to deal with it, and unaware of just why they break.
Actor Mylo Gosch portrays Brian’s embarrassment at his problems and his wariness with his mom’s irritability, which keeps him from telling her what’s going on. But when the truth finally comes out and Helen becomes aware of Brian’s social problems, she teaches him how to stand up with himself. The solution isn’t perfect — but it fits both perfectly to a tee.
Rich with irony and eschewing schmaltzy sentimentality, “Four Eyes” has the nostalgic spirit of a film like Bad News Bears. But this is a family story above all else, with a warmth and humor that isn’t feel-good but earned through the full growth and authentic expression of character. When Helen realizes just what is going on with Brian, her advice and counsel goes against the current parenting mores, and certainly viewed through today’s lens of helicopter parenting and over-coddled children, it seems shocking, though very funny. But it’s very true to her personality, and in the end, it also expresses her belief in her son’s strength, as well as her love for him.