Measure of a Man is a throwback to an era when YA novels were about going to a beach town in the 1970s, drinking rum for the first time, and maybe touching a boob. Now YA novels are about overthrowing dystopian regimes (and maybe touching a boob). An adaptation of One Fat Summer, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte’s 1977 semi-autobiographical novel, Measure of a Man feels pleasantly out of time.
When amiable fat kid Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) goes upstate with his family for their traditional summer vacation, he ends up getting a job doing yardwork for the prickly Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland). Meanwhile, Bobby’s parents are arguing more than usual. He’s nervous about taking his shirt off at the pool. Ugh, here come some bullies.
These are the plot points we’re dealing with here, so if you need supernatural love triangles or bloodsport, look elsewhere. Instead Measure of a Man focuses on astutely sketched characters and realistically low stakes. Bobby is a smart, witheringly dry kid who never sounds like a Hollywood screenwriter retroactively winning their childhood fights. He’s good when he’s in his element, but he freezes up in tense situations, and the film is largely about him going from being 80 percent terrified of confrontation to only being 75 percent terrified of confrontation, which feels fair. Throughout, Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn is an anchoring presence rather than a tired cliché, as is too often the case with wise old mentor figures who toddle around giant houses. (He’s a Holocaust survivor, because of course he is, but that element of the story is handled with a respectful obliqueness I appreciated.)
So it’s not about toppling governments or defeating ancient evil, but Measure of a Man captures the smaller battles that feel just as important when you’re an awkward teenager, like eventually impressing Donald Sutherland or maybe touching a boob. I hope there’s still room in the genre for that.