Nostalgia ultimately gets the best of director Rob Reiner in "Flipped," a well-intentioned family pic about first love that's overly concerned with period details and life lessons, rather than the genuinely sweet characters at its center. Though thankfully skirting the more saccharine manipulations of Reiner's "The Bucket List," "Flipped" is nonetheless a somewhat leaden piece of work, its considerable charms nearly smothered by strange pacing and awkward staging. Opening in limited release before spreading wide, this looks to be a profitably modest theatrical draw followed by more generous homevid activity.
Adapted from Wendelin Van Draanen's well-loved 2001 young-adult novel, "Flipped" delves into the intricacies of a slowly budding junior-high romance "Rashomon"-style, with key incidents told and retold by each side of the gender divide. Representing that divide are across-the-street neighbors Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll), an idealistic oddball with a knack for climbing trees and raising chickens, and Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe), an oft-confused all-American type.
As Juli has harbored a crush on him since second-grade, Bryce has mastered ducking her attentions through "a half-decade of strategic avoidance," he tells us in voiceover. As they enter middle school, Bryce begins to feel guilty for so frequently joining the crowd as they mock her idiosyncrasies, which ever-so-incrementally leads him toward more serious feelings for her, while Juli starts to wonder what she ever saw in this rather unimaginative pretty-boy.
Set in rural Michigan in the early 1960s (the novel took place in the present day), the film charts the relationship's episodic progress while also limning the class divide between the two families, contrasting Juli's loving blue-collar clan with Bryce's judgmental upper-middle-class one. The film never tries to clutter its suburban milieu with excessive drama, yet so many scenes are played twice to accommodate the opposing perspectives that things start to drag.
Pic also gains little from being transposed to the postwar era of Reiner's childhood (and of his far superior "Stand by Me"). In fact, the vintage details ultimately become a distraction; the period seems to encourage an almost Thomas Kinkade-worthy idealization in the director -- every scene appears to take place during the magic hour, when even McAuliffe's peach fuzz glows in the warm amber light -- with all of the most obvious cultural signifiers and music popping up at every turn. (There will be Everly Brothers.)
Reiner maintains an even tone through most of the film, though he notably loses control whenever the focus leaves the two protagonists. Anthony Edwards (as Bryce's choleric father) never seems to know whether he's supposed to provide outright villainy or goofy comic relief, and a late scene in which he gets drunk and slaps Bryce's older sister comes from out of nowhere. Likewise, Juli's visit to her institutionalized uncle (Kevin Weisman) comes across as uncomfortably manipulative.
The two young leads do an admirable job carrying the film, however, and one wishes they were granted more time to simply be their characters, rather than running the kiddie romantic-comedy gantlet. Carroll is both adorable and believably self-possessed; unlike so many actors tasked with playing precocious children, she's still recognizably a kid despite her maturity. Aussie first-timer McAuliffe is a bit more stilted in his line readings, though he's still a game performer and gets his American accent just about right. Adult supporting players are largely competent, with Aidan Quinn particularly likable as Juli's father, and John Mahoney making the best of his "teller of homespun truths" part as Bryce's grandfather.
Technical contributions are pro, although the tendency toward high-gloss, seemingly CG-sweetened sunsets gets a bit cloying.