by HELEN GEIB
Drillbit Taylor is a sweet and funny comedy about three high school freshmen who hire a bum to protect them from the bully who has made their school days a living hell. I recently declared that movies about the travails of high school life no longer hold any interest for me. Fortunately, that interest isn’t required to enjoy Drillbit Taylor. It offers charm, originality, and a marvelous comic performance from Owen Wilson at its center.
Wade (Nate Hartley) and Ryan a/k/a (at his request) T-Dog (Troy Gentile) are best friends. Their personalities harmonize, but physically they are comically mismatched. “Hartley and Gentile” is the near end of a line of cinematic comic duos exemplified by Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Their looks make them a likely target of bullying anyway, and their fate is sealed on the first day of classes when Wade speaks up against the bullying of another student, the small and nerdy Emmit (David Dorfman). Emmit quickly attaches himself to Wade and Ryan and the three of them become the favorite target of borderline-psychopath Filkins (Alex Frost), the school’s reigning terror.
Mercilessly harassed in and outside of school and possessed by a very reasonable fear for their physical safety, the friends hire Drillbit Taylor to protect them. They want Drillbit to beat up Filkins. He convinces them that defeating Filkins on their own is the best long-term strategy; he’ll teach them to fight and keep them safe in the meantime (effected by infiltrating the high school as a substitute teacher under the nom de guerre Dr. Illbit). What they don’t know is that Drillbit is a bum sniffing out an easy score and his advice is only a delaying tactic. What Drillbit doesn’t know is how easily he’ll become caught up in his role as mentor and how quickly he’ll become fond of his young charges.
The film’s sweetness is in the relationship between Drillbit, Wade, and Ryan. Wade and Ryan are both from broken families with absentee fathers, and Wade has the additional handicap that his step-father is like a middle-aged, high-functioning Filkins. Although they would never admit it themselves, they look to Drillbit for a surrogate father. For his part, Drillbit begins the story in a state of arrested development. Caring for the boys (and the beautiful teacher he’s fallen for) means assuming the adult responsibility of taking responsibility for the first time.
Much of the film’s comedy is in that same relationship, which has an obvious and fully exploited comical aspect. There are also very funny scenes of Drillbit as teacher, and Drillbit as bum, and Drillbit as drill instructor, and Drillbit as great lover, and Drillbit as… you get the picture. Drillbit as written and as played by Wilson is a very, very funny character. Hartley and Gentile are also quite good. That Wade and Ryan come across as real 14 year olds, precocious in some ways and awkward and immature in others, is most refreshing. They are far from the impossibly beautiful and preternaturally mature teens of the typical high school movie.