Vikram Murthi’s review published on Letterboxd:
This movie used to only be funny, with maybe enough melancholy to give it some teeth. I watch it now and every moment that doesn’t make me laugh breaks my heart. I’m loath to praise a film for its niceness because Our Current Cultural Landscape exalts the most boring form of it imaginable, i.e. people being gooey to each other because any other mode of expression (sarcasm, cynicism, apathy, contempt) is ostensibly too much for such dull, sensitive souls to bear. But something that never registered when I was younger is how kind every adult is to Max, even when he’s being a little shit who doesn’t necessarily deserve their compassion. They openly respect his charm and his gifts for gab and play but are also constantly aware of his preternatural ability to lie to himself and others in order to maintain a very loose façade. On this umpteenth viewing, the first in roughly a decade, I almost came unlaced when Blume literally exclaims his desire for Max to come work for him at the wrestling match. It’s such a desperate plea by an adult who recognizes something special in a kid but doesn’t really know how to help them get through this obviously terrible time. Blume and Cross treat Max like a peer and humor him like a child, and the ways that those lines get blurred invigorate the love-triangle and coming-of-age narrative(s). It’s also fairly representative of how all adults treat precocious kids. W.A. isn’t precious about any of this because there’s an instinctual trust that Max will eventually figure it out, but it doesn’t make the slow, unforgiving process of him recognizing his own limitations any more bearable to watch.
Murray gives one of my favorite performances of all time—a broken man who rediscovers his curiosity about his meager world through a teen whose imagination won’t be contained by the exact same environment, who finds love in a fellow broken heart hoping that she’ll repair his damage despite her suffering in silence as well, who has been a little bit lonely for as long as he can remember. With enough distance, however, I can fully embrace the obvious that is Schwartzman’s turn, which really is one of the best child (read: under 18) performances the medium ever produced. Yet, that type of rarefied praise doesn’t really do his work any favors. It’s fundamentally difficult to communicate all shades of such a specific characterization at once: Max is often abrasive and annoying, and frequently full of it, and endlessly mockable; he’s also very perceptive and perennially endearing for reasons that aren’t so easy to pin down, though it certainly has something to do with how circumstance never holds him back. It’s remarkable that Schwartzman pulls all this off without rendering Max a cutesy “gifted kid” and while also being genuinely funny, not just funny for his age. When Max stands up in front of his Grover Cleveland class and tells his fellow students that he’s not an elitist and that he’s hoping to make the best of it there, you know just how sincere he’s being in that moment even while cringing at his inability to read the room. The chip on his shoulder gives him relative confidence but it also makes him a permanent target for the world at large, and the ways in which everyone in his life try to protect him from his inevitable wounds is such a profound communal act. It’s made more powerful by the fact that W.A. never fully explicates this until it’s absolutely necessary, and the moment when he does (the Punctuality and Perfect Attendance scene—two awards that can only be attained by someone whose only notable academic skill is showing up—through Blume meeting Max’s dad) is unbearably cathartic.
The running joke of my life is that I’ve been 43 since I was born. (There’s a third-grade report card sitting somewhere in my parents’ apartment that reads, “Vikram has the disposition of a middle-aged man.”) Don’t get me wrong, it is funny, at least most of the time, given my attitude and my taste profile and all that. Practically, what that meant was that I was treated with grownup gloves by adults when I was a young’un because I could keep up with them (or, more accurately, I could successfully imitate what “keeping up” looks and sounds like, but at some point, that difference becomes negligible), and it was entertaining for them to indulge me. I have zero interest in laying blame on anyone for doing this, but there is something to be said for the kinds of unforeseen damage adults can inflict on kids who are seemingly wise beyond their years just by placing innate trust in them to be alright in the end. That W.A., who was my age when he filmed this, made a movie about this very specific feeling is one thing. It’s another thing entirely for that movie to be so rigidly executed, where every single shot has intention and weight, and to make such formal precision look effortless and feel purely pleasurable. (Rigorous storyboarding ≠ anodyne filmmaking, to state the obvious.) I roll my eyes whenever anyone sneers that he never made a movie better than Rushmore, but it makes me wonder if those people realize just how great Rushmore actually is.