At first glance, Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff) seems like your typical nerdy high school student. An introvert who has a hard time making friends, Ed is a talented writer but what he really wants to do is play for his school’s legendary football team. One thing that sets Ed apart from cinematic nerds of the past is that he is not lacking in confidence. He’s shy but he understands what he’s capable of accomplishing. He knows he’s a good writer. He also know that he has the potential to be a good football player. When he crashes the team’s practice and manages to talk Coach Burton (Kevin Dunn) into giving him a shot, Ed proves that he’s the faster than anyone else on the team. And when one of the other players starts to bully him, Ed has no trouble convincing the quarterback to stand up for him. After all, as Ed explains it, if Ed’s not in a good mood than he’s not going to catch anything that the quarterback throws. And if Ed doesn’t make those catches, the quarterback won’t have a good game and, if he doesn’t have a good game, he won’t get any scholarship offers.
At first, Ed’s determination to play football horrifies both his mother, June (Sarah Silverman), and his best (and only) friend, Eloise (Emma Roberts). June is a single mother who terrifies Ed by openly discussing her sex life with him. Eloise, meanwhile, is a self-styled misfit who is nicknamed “weird girl” by Ed’s fellow jocks. It’s only after they see Ed playing on the field (and, not coincidentally, making the winning catch), that June and Eloise start to support Ed’s athletic dreams…
Meanwhile, Ed is getting to know his neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke). Ashby is a former CIA agent who has just been informed that he has only a few months to live. Ed needs to talk to an old person for a class assignment. Ashby needs someone to drive him around town. At first, Ashby refuses to open up to Ed but slowly, Ashby starts to lower his defenses. Ashby is soon coming to Ed’s football games, flirting with June, and serving as a substitute father figure.
Of course, Asby is also murdering people. Though Ed doesn’t know it, the reason that Ashby keeps asking him for a ride is because Ashby is determined to track down and kill three men who he feels betrayed him. Ashby does this with the full knowledge that eventually, the CIA is going to send somebody to take him out…
Ashby is a mix of genres that don’t really go together. It’s a gentle coming-of-age comedy that’s also a violent revenge thriller. The end result is an extremely messy film that never finds a consistent tone. And yet, at the same time, that inconsistency is a part of the film’s strange charm. The film is so determined to make its oddball mix of genres work that you actually do find yourself rooting for it, even if it doesn’t quite succeed. Ashby is one of those films that shouldn’t work and yet, somehow, it does.
Some credit for that has to go to director Tony McNamara. He directs with a good eyes for detail (the satiric portrayal of both high school and suburbia feels totally authentic) and he keeps the action moving at such a quick pace that you really don’t have time to obsess over the film’s mishmash of themes and tones.
Even more credit, however, I think has to be given to the cast, all of whom show an admirable commitment to bringing their eccentric characters to life. Mickey Rourke’s plays Ashby as if he might be a distant relation to his character from The Wrestler while Sarah Silverman is so perfectly cast as June that you occasionally find yourself wishing that the entire film could be just about her. I’ve lost track of how many times Emma Roberts has been cast as a quirky high school girlfriend but she still brings as much depth as she can to her underwritten character.
Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Nat Wolff, who was so good (as was Emma Roberts) in last year’s Palo Alto. Wolff’s character in Ashby may not have much in common with the sociopath that he played in Palo Alto or the blind friend he played in The Fault In Our Stars, but Wolff brings a sly charm to all three roles and that charm convince the audience to not only accept but even embrace some of the film’s inconsistencies. Nat Wolff truly holds Asbhy together, helping the film to survive some of its more uneven moments.
Ashby has been given a limited theatrical release and is available through VOD. It’s definitely an uneven film but it’s worth seeing.