Think ‘Home Alone’ but with a pedo in place of pratfalls.
It seems only fair that a comedic film modeled on a terrifying premise would itself inspire some darker takes on the same synopsis. Home Alone (1990) found fun with a child lead in what’s essentially a home invasion tale. 2016’s Safe Neighborhood (aka Better Watch Out) mashed the premise with a babysitter-in-peril plot to great success, and now a new Canadian film has arrived built on similar bones.
Henry (Luca Villacis) doesn’t know his Grandpa Jacob (Michael Ironside) very well, but that doesn’t stop his parents from dropping the boy off with the old man for a weekend so they can enjoy some alone time out of town. Jacob’s remote farm lacks cell reception and the typical distractions craved by modern pre-teen boys, though, so Henry’s forced to make do with some old-school entertainment including manual labor and throwing a baseball against the side of the barn. It’s a passable time until things take a turn for the worse.
Jacob appears to die in his sleep leaving the boy all alone, and when Henry reaches out to the nearest neighbor it’s not quite help he finds in return. Dixon (Munro Chambers) is something of an oddball — but not in the fun, harmless kind of way — and soon the boy is fighting for his life against a young man with dangerous interests and even deadlier truths.
Knuckleball is a fairly tight little thriller that packs a lot of information, suspense, and meanness into a running time of under ninety minutes. Director/co-writer Michael Peterson eases viewers into the story well by establishing the relationship — or lack thereof — between Henry and his grandfather as well as teasing some tension between the old man and his daughter (Henry’s mom). It’s all strong character work that comes to pay off later, and happily that later comes quickly.
Dixon makes a brief appearance early on marking him as potentially dangerous, and Chambers — last seen as the heroic Turbo Kid — gives a terrifically twisted performance. His interests in the boy are far from neighborly, and Henry kicks into gear once he realizes it. The action moves seamlessly from creepy and claustrophobic interiors to the winter storm brewing outside, and cinematographer Jon Thomas gives it all a dangerous edge. The Home Alone nods are clear once they arrive, and while that film is violent for laughs this one is dead set on inflicting pain.
The script, co-written by Kevin Cockle, sets the stage for a one on one battle, and while we get that there’s more to Knuckleball than simply survival. There’s more to his family than young Henry knows too, and that’s where the film could have used a little more time. It works for some crazy shock value, but the dramatic effect is lessened by its abbreviated and rushed nature.
Ironside is the recognizable talent draw here, and while his character dies by the end of the first act his influence and presence is felt throughout. He’s clearly having fun in the role too as an old grump, and he adds gravitas in his weight and demeanor that the two younger co-stars lack. They hold their own, though, and there’s never a dull moment in their various attempts to survive, kill, and… well, do whatever it is Canadians do in barns.
Knuckleball is a slim but solid thriller about a boy who isn’t home alone for long, and while it could stand to be a bit meatier in the plot department it succeeds as a tense and grim visit to rural Canada.