Often when a movie doesn’t meet expectations, I find myself thinking, “Well, if they had done it this way, maybe it would have worked.” However, that is not the case with Simon Atkinson and Adam Townley’s feature directorial debut Shovel Buddies. The movie has a strong cast and some decent camerawork (minus one scene shot through the reflection of a mirror), but it’s still a total disaster thanks to the ludicrous premise.
The film stars Alex Neustaedter as Jimmy. When his best friend Sammy dies of leukemia, it falls upon him to fulfill Sammy’s last wish, to be buried in his favorite football jersey. Sammy is just about to be cremated when Jimmy gets the message, but that doesn’t stop him. With some help from his former friend Dan (Kian Lawley), his little brother Lump (Anton Starkman) and Sammy’s sister Kate (Bella Thorne), Jimmy goes above and beyond to honor his best friend’s request, even if it means breaking the law and risking his life in the process.
There’s something endearing about someone willing to risk everything to fulfill a dead friend’s wish, but the way Jimmy goes about it is absolutely ridiculous. The first big eye roll comes when Sammy delivers his last will and testament to Jimmy via Snapchat, an element that’s a bit too “hip” for its own good. Then, when Sammy’s grief-stricken parents tell Jimmy that they would rather not pick up their dead son’s body to put a football jersey on him, Jimmy and co. decide that the next best move is to go to the facility, steal the corpse and drive around town collecting the tools they need to bury him themselves.
First off, who in their right mind – teenager or adult – would ever think that is a good idea? If Sammy’s parents aren’t up for it, why not just wait for the morgue attendant to return? They most certainly didn’t need to smash a window, break in and steal the body. I also imagine that someone’s parents had to have had some shovels laying around. Jimmy did not need to drive his parents’ car through a storefront window so that they could steal two of them. You know what else makes no sense and doesn’t fit in the film? The joyful singalong/dance party they have in the car with Sammy bouncing around in the middle. It’s also rather grotesque to glorify cigarette smoking in a movie about a teenager who loses his life to cancer.
Screenwriter Jason Hellerman has the main characters making one nonsensical decision after the next, and each and every one makes the movie increasingly uncomfortable to watch. It isn’t funny seeing Jimmy and Dan fumble around with a corpse and it also isn’t picturesque to show the four living characters sitting in the car with the body either. And while it may make sense for one of them to give up their pants so that Sammy isn’t exposed during their big adventure, we really don’t need to see Jimmy running around in his underwear the entire film. They stop for shovels and candy, but they can’t get him a new pair of pants?
Even worse, the movie never makes a good case for why Sammy means so much to Jimmy. In fact, at one point, new character details emerge that make you question Jimmy’s intense loyalty to his late friend. Hellerman also tries to cram in a laundry list of peripheral issues that feel forced and never come close to enhancing the main narrative. There’s the fact that Jimmy slept with Kate despite Sammy’s objections, there’s the tension between Jimmy and Dan, and the problems that arise from Jimmy neglecting his little brother. It’s all supposed to tie into the main mission to bury Sammy, but Hellerman doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling it off and making it all mean something.
Atkinson and Hellerman clearly had good intentions and the whole cast gives the material their all, but there is just no making this story work. It seems as though the duo was going for something along the lines of Stand By Me, but the kids in that movie don’t sound like “wise beyond their years” jerks, make reckless decisions or bop around with a dead body for 60 minutes.
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