The Tom Sawyer I knew while growing up was endearing for his American ingenuity. Old women would affectionately laugh at his antics while girls had a bit of a crush on him. Remember the time he convinced all his friends to pay him to whitewash his fence, they’d say.
But while a boy like Tom would be celebrated for his cleverness, a man who swindled his neighbors in the same fashion would be a scoundrel.
The latter’s what Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee) initally seems like in Adam and Aaron Nee’s indie film “Band of Robbers” (2015) — a modern retelling of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
This adult Tom Sawyer is a sad, boy-man: a kid who never really grew out of his childish fantasies of becoming a modern-day pirate, Robin Hood or detective. He was one of the coolest kids in sixth grade, but now in his mid-30s, he’s a loser who’s going no where fast.
His ex-fiancé, Amy Lawrence (Maria Blasucci), broke up with him in favor of his friend Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton). His boss, Lieutenant A. Polly (Lee Garlington), won’t promote him from a patrol officer to a detective. And his half-brother, Sid (Eric Christian Olsen), is doing way better than him.
The only person who still thinks the sun shines out of Tom’s shoes is Tom’s best friend (and the film’s narrator), Huck Finn (Kyle Gallner, “American Sniper”). Huck’s been stuck in jail for a number of years though after taking fall after fall for Tom. And when he emerges from parole when the film begins, Tom enlists him in another illegal caper: a pawn shop robbery (and perhaps an allusion to Wes Anderson’s first feature film,“Bottle Rocket.”)
While “Band of Robbers” isn’t part of the Cohen brothers or Wes Andersonian canon, it’s not difficult to see the directors influence on the film. The Nee brothers write an ironic coming-of-age story starring adults with youthful outlooks.
These adults seem like cartoonish caricatures of people that you sort of know. Tom could be that dude that still plays video games in his parents’ basement while all his peers have real jobs and Becky Thatcher’s (Melissa Benoist) that new intern’s that too eager to please.
Despite these familiar elements, the film doesn’t feel like a typical sitcom, comedy or a drama. Instead, “Band of Robbers” contains elements of all these genres, and displays them with an absurd and wistfully, whimsical charm.
For starters this epigraph from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” sets the tone: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
(This makes a critic’s job particularly perilous.)
Told in five chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue, the Nee brother’s world resembles that of a storybook — full of bright colors and incandescent personalities. One of the characters lives inside a Queen Anne Victorian-style mansion and another character (Matthew Gray Gubler) wears a bright yellow T-shirt, red bandana and American flag shorts for most of the film. Neither of these characters are Tom Sawyer, the ambitious hero of Twain’s literary classics.
As yellow-orange sunspots dance across the silver screen, Huck Finn’s delivers a reverent narration, describing Tom Sawyer as if he were the “Great Gatsby” to Huck Finn’s “Nick Carraway.” Belying Huck’s words, of course, are Tom’s words and actions.
“When you steal from criminals, it makes stealing a good thing, rather than a bad one,” says Tom cheekily.
Stealing’s a moral you won’t find condoned in most storybooks (nor by this author) — yet whatever storytelling techniques the Nee brothers stole from Mark Twain, Wes Anderson and the Cohen brothers made “Band of Robbers” all the better.
“Band of Robbers” was written and directed by Adam and Aaron Nee based on Mark Twain’s books.