In story, in character and in laid-back style, "Hoot" stirs up memories of a book you might have read in the fourth or fifth grade. Not an enduring book whose every facet stays with you throughout the years, mind you, but one that kept your interest long enough to finish it before moving on to bigger and better things. It's not surprising, then, that "Hoot" is based on a young adult novel by Carl Hiaasen (his last adapted work, rather uncharacteristically, was 1996's "Striptease"). Its soft-hearted, chronically unextraordinary plot is tailor-made as a quick and pleasant read for younger audiences, but not nearly dynamic enough to warrant a cinematic treatment. As a film even one that is blessedly light on potty jokes and other forms of dumbed-down humor "Hoot" is pretty thin stuff.
13-year-old middle schooler Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) has just begun to love the vast mountainous expanses of his Montana home when his parents (Neil Flynn and Kiersten Warren) once again abruptly move them to a new location. Now in the sleepy coastal town of Coconut Cove, Florida, Roy immediately gets a new enemy in the form of incessant bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips) and finds himself drawn to a mysterious boy named Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), who he sees running barefoot beside the school bus one day. When it is discovered that tough classmate Beatrice Leep (Brie Larson) may have some info on Mullet Fingers, the trio gradually ingratiate themselves as friends. Together, they set out to stop some crooked land developers from wiping out an owl habitat in order to build a Mother Paula's Pancake House chain restaurant.
Written and directed by Wil Shriner (making his film debut after a lot of sitcom work), "Hoot" is so old-fashioned and quaint that it nearly suffocates from its limited scope. It's the type of picture where everyone has convoluted nicknames only ever heard of in movies, like Mullet Fingers, Beatrice the Bear and Cowgirl. Inside the pages of a book aimed at older elementary school kids and those in junior high, this is a pill more easily swallowed as a storytelling device. In the realm of a movie, however, these too-cute names sound ridiculous and quickly become an annoyance. "Hoot" is also the kind of film where the underdogs refuse to give up on a good cause (in this case, an environmental one) until the decidedly dim grownups around them wake up and smell the cold, hard truth.
Too narrow in its story to hardly even classify as an effective coming-of-age tale, Roy and friends go through the bland motions of the script while sporadically dealing with other issues, such as bullying and familial discord (i.e. Mullet Fingers is homeless and Beatrice's parents are constantly fighting). Since these latter plot points pop up almost as asides that never find closure, they don't provide the punch of reality director Shriner is going for. There is also an unavoidable homoerotic subtext in the way Roy is immediately drawn to Mullet Fingers the second he lays eyes on him, and makes it his mission to track him down and get to know him. Once they do become friends, they spend a lot of time going off together to speedboat around the water and fish on the beach. Meanwhile, Roy never exhibits even a hint of romantic interest in Beatrice, not even when she ends up sleeping over one night. The more suggestive friendship between Roy and Mullet Fingers isn't sexual nor is it inappropriate; quite the contrary, it could have almost gone further to add a little edge and depth to the project.
Logan Lerman (2004's "The Butterfly Effect
") is a casting coup as Roy Eberhardt. As he demonstrated on TV's underrated, now-defunct "Jack & Bobby," Lerman brings an ill-at-ease undercurrent to his acting that makes him always seem not fully comfortable in his own skin. This worked well for the character of Bobby, and it works well for Roy, who doesn't really feel like he fits in with his peers and is initially out of his element in Florida. As cohorts Mullet Fingers and Beatrice, Cody Linley (2005's "Rebound
") and especially Brie Larson (2004's "Sleepover
") are a little long in the tooth to be playing middle school age, but acquit themselves amicably besides. As for the adults, Luke Wilson (2005's "The Family Stone
") shows up as the bumbling Officer Delinko; Kiersten Warren (2004's "13 Going on 30
") and Neil Flynn (2004's "Mean Girls
") play Roy's parents as caring but somewhat out of touch; and musician Jimmy Buffett (who also contributes a number of agreeable original songs to the soundtrack) is surprisingly natural as Roy's science teacher, Mr. Ryan.
A suspension of disbelief is called for as "Hoot" moves into the third act, starting with Roy, Mullet Fingers and Beatrice committing a number of questionable crimes (evading the police, identity fraud, kidnapping) in the name of their cause and ultimately getting off without even a firm talking to. The finale is also patently ludicrous, hinging on whether the nocturnal owls will make their presence known in broad daylight and surrounded by a crowd of people. Attractively photographed on location in Florida by Michael Chapman (2004's "Suspect Zero
"), "Hoot" isn't an overtly bad family film there's little to specifically criticize save for the aforementioned plot points but it is a shrug-worthy one. Very low-key and even dated (it feels like you're watching a 1975 made-for-television movie half the time rather than a 2006 release), this is one big-screen adaptation that should have stayed on the printed page, where its light charms are no doubt better served.