Spirit of Friendship is a new-age after-school special with a heart

by Ed Blackadder

If you are old enough to remember the days of ABC After School Specials, a movie like “Spirit of Friendship” will hold a nostalgic place for you (barring a few moments of PG-13 language).

Writer/director Danny LeGare creates a heartfelt coming-of-age tale with its main character, Billy (Jeremy London), sharing a story with his children, and recounting a difficult time from his childhood.

When Billy finds his kids grieving over their deceased grandfather, he tells a story from his youth and how he dealt with the death of his mother when he was their age. Most of the movie follows the journey of 12-year-old Billy (Carter Grassi) as he navigates the world of friendship, loss, family, and neighborhood bullies.

Jeremy London, as the adult Billy, narrates the tale and adds a steadying presence with the skill of a veteran actor.

Young Billy is dealing with the not-so-distant memory of his mother dying. He and his father handle the loss in different ways, inevitably leading to conflict between them. During the days of early tweenhood, Billy’s friendships transition from childhood relationships to mature and supportive interactions.

The story takes a page out of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” playbook with a mysterious guide in the character of Leonard (Sal Rendino), who helps Billy to find his own path.

The technical aspects of “Spirit of Friendship” are very good. Independent movies often have their greatest weaknesses in photographic composition or audio quality, but LaGare guides a crew and presents a project that excels in both.

While London delivers the movie’s standout performance, the rest of the cast performs admirably. While the less experienced actors don’t consistently hit the mark, they do a fine job of carrying the story forward.

“Spirit of Friendship” does have its flaws, and they are mostly forgivable and easy to overcome as a viewer. The soundtrack dominates the movie, never really letting up or giving us time to take in the natural ambience of the story. And one of the challenges with writing for kids, is trying to make them sound like kids with their own authentic voice–LeGare is hit and miss in this realm.

The movie is also, essentially a period piece with adult Billy being in his fifties, with the story he is telling putting him about 40 years in the past, most likely in the 1980s. However, there is nothing that distinguishes the four decade difference. In fact, young Billy even has a modern smart phone long before they were conceived.

The most difficult thing to decipher about “Spirt of Friendship” is the audience. Who is the intended viewing audience? While watching this movie it is uncertain if it is meant for kids to relate to Billy, like an after school special of the 1980s, or if it is meant to have more of a nostalgic pull for an adult audience, similar to a “Stand By Me” type of movie. “Spirt of Friendship” teeters back and forth with this dilemma, but mostly finds itself in the family film genre with its various characters discovering how to cope with the loss of loved ones while being supportive of one another.

Where “Spirit of Friendship” is strongest, is within the relationships LeGare builds, the journey those relationships undergo, and the believability in their development that brings the characters and their stories to a worthwhile and satisfying conclusion.

Ed’s Grade: B