The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

The Battle of Shaker Heights, the second movie from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Project Greenlight, has little to do with actual war, but it was definitely made in the trenches with enemy fire coming from all directions.

In theory, PGL is an online writing and directing contest designed to give unknown filmmakers a shot at the big time, but there’s a catch. In return for the largesse of Affleck, Damon, executive producer Chris Moore, and Miramax, the entire process, from pre-production to red carpet premiere, is recorded and broadcast as part of an HBO miniseries. Every decision, every mistake, every misstep, and every dust-up involving writers, directors, and producers is captured.

The series doubles as primary promotional vehicle for the film. The Battle of Shaker Heights debuted in theaters immediately after the last episode of Project Greenlight aired. “We want to show things as they really are,” Damon says in opening credits of the HBO series. Yeah, right.

Damon and Affleck would like us to believe they were just two average joes plucked from obscurity with nothing but a screenplay and a dream. But the truth is that Affleck and Damon had been making the Hollywood rounds for years, acting in low-budget independent films and networking their way to the top. Good Will Hunting, the film that won them Screenwriting Oscars and international fame in 1997, would never have been made without the industry connections they developed, years before one frame was shot.

With all this behind them, it seems a bit cruel for Damon and Affleck to pluck wannabes right off the turnip truck, so to speak, but that’s exactly what they do here. The filmmaking-on-camera process is bad enough, but the aftermath can be oblivion: no one remembers last year’s winner, Pete Jones, who directed Stolen Summer.

This year’s winners are screenwriter and Erica Beeney, and co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. The series showed them arriving in Hollywood following the glitz of the Sundance Film Festival, completely friendless. With Ben resuming his tabloid existence with Jennifer Lopez and Damon taking off for Prague to shoot his next film, the novice filmmakers were left with Moore, the crew he’s assembled, and the HBO cameras. The resulting reality tv included a lot of fighting, complaining, and bad behavior, cut for dramatic effect.

The Battle of Shaker Heights would have been much, much worse without its star, Shia LaBoeuf. The 16-year-old (Holes) brings charm, charisma, and a lot of heart to the lead role of Kelly, carrying the film through a minefield of teen movie traumas, including local bullies, dysfunctional parents, ignorant teachers, a troubled best friend Bart (Eldon Henson), and the requisite crush on an older woman, in this case, his best friend’s already affianced and Yale Grad School-bound sister, Tabby (Amy Smart).

Kelly is a high school senior in Shaker Heights, Ohio, whose extracurricular activities include re-enacting famous battles of World War II and resenting the hell out of his recovering addict father (William Sadler). Kelly reveals the deep background on this anger during a too-short shouting match with his artist mother (Kathleen Quinlan); but as soon as his “motivation” begins to come into focus, the movie goes off in another direction entirely.

It does this a lot. Kelly’s father and mother are only sketched, his friends (including his sweet coworker at Shop-Ease, played by Shiri Appleby) seem extensions never come to life When Bart accuses him of having an “agenda,” it’s not clear what he means, as you’ve seen no sign of one. He’s certainly intriguing, but adrift in this series of scenes: one minute, the film is a bumbling adolescent romance; the next, it’s a family melodrama; and at still another, it’s a schoolboy caper flick.

It’s easy enough to dismiss The Battle of Shaker Heights as a bad movie. But because the entire production process was recorded (and edited for public consumption), we have come to believe there are reasons and culprits involved in its badness. As we saw week to week, newbies Rankin, Potelle and Beeney didn’t dare fight for this film. The vibe from Moore and Miramax was that they are damn lucky to be making a movie at all; when the first cut didn’t do well with test audiences, a decision was made to turn the film into a teen comedy. The directors protested, noting there wasn’t enough “comic” footage to create a full-fledged comedy. Beeney became so frustrated watching her story reduced to cheesy melodrama that she proclaimed herself “emotionally detached,” and just did whatever she was told.

While Affleck and Damon may think they are throwing open the doors to the Hollywood club with Project Greenlight, the reverse appears to be true. This is the second flop resulting from a combination of makers’ inexperience and studio meddling. Thanks to HBO, we know exactly how many circles of hell these three “winners” were marched through in order to get this film into theaters. But they’re the only ones who know if the ordeal was worth it.