A few pages into "The Film Club" (Twelve, $21.99), the smart, new memoir by Canadian film critic David Gilmour, it becomes clear that if he ever saw any of MGM's squeaky-clean "Andy Hardy" movies while growing up, they left little impression on him.
It's doubtful that the granite-faced Judge Hardy would have ever told his gawky teenage son (played by Mickey Rooney), "If you don't want to go to school anymore, then you don't have to." But that's the proposal Gilmour makes to his 16-year-old son, Jesse, sounding less like a dad and more like Don Corleone making an offer that no red-blooded young male with failing grades could refuse. Naturally, there's a catch: Each week Jesse has to watch three films with his dad, all of which the latter has chosen. Gilmour also happens to be out of work at the time, and sees it as a chance to not only bond with Jesse, but to perhaps find some meaning in his own life.
Jesse indulges his father, and over the next three years cinema becomes his education, starting with Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," about a French teen with problems similar to Jesse's. Too bad Lesson One doesn't go as well as Dad planned. "A bit boring" is Jesse's critique.
"A Hard Day's Night" also does not elicit the desired response: "Dreadful ... and John Lennon was the worst of the bunch."
Not all of the films Gilmour screens for his son are classics or ever will be (forcing Jesse to watch the Elaine May megabomb "Ishtar" could be evidence of child abuse). Still, Gilmour gets through with help from James Dean in "Giant" ("a cool guy," Jesse observes).
The movies ultimately lead to father-son heart-to-hearts on everything from Jesse's troubled relationship with flirtatious teen Rebecca Ng, the boy's experimentation with cocaine and his plans for the future. While Jesse is also trying to find his way, Gilmour likewise tries to revamp his life by finding any kind of a job (even his attempt at getting a job as a bicycle courier fizzles).
Gilmour keeps "The Film Club" from lapsing into a "Tuesdays With Morrie" sugar-high through sharp writing and pointed insights about the films he screens and the people who made them, many of whom he meets through his work:
Harvey Keitel ("a great actor, but a brain like an uncooked pork roast"); Oliver Stone ("smarter than the scripts he writes"); Vanessa Redgrave ("warm, statuesque, like talking to the Queen"); and Jodie Foster ("like trying to break into Fort Knox").
It's not giving away much to say Gilmour pulls his career and life together in small steps, the first being a newspaper assignment to write a film review. Jesse also has to take a detour through dead-end telemarketing jobs. In the end, both prevail.
Too bad Gilmour wasn't there to straighten out Andy Hardy.