Juli Baker and Bryce Loski live in different worlds. She lives on one side of the street, he on the other. Bryce, whose family is the picture of Eisenhower-era suburban respectability, learns from his father’s disdain that the Bakers aren’t; Juli is blissfully unaware either of the Loskis’ well-to-doness or of her own family’s hardships. They see each other every day from the time they are 7 without ever really seeing each other.
Then there’s the biggest social gap of all: He’s a boy and she’s a girl. That one they’re both intensely aware of, but it means something very different to each of them. Or perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s something that Juli is ready for and Bryce isn’t.
Already, there are hints of the kind of person each may grow up to be, though they are very much children. Juli, who sees only Bryce’s dazzling eyes, really doesn’t know why she can’t take hers away from him, and Bryce really doesn’t know why Juli’s avid interest in him is so excruciating.
This situation lasts for years. Then there comes a moment when 13-year-old Juli (Madeline Carroll) looks at Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) with new eyes, and it’s not what she expected. Bryce is still behind the curve, but he has changed too — and when it looks like Juli’s interest in him may be diminishing, it has an effect on him that he wouldn’t have suspected only a short time earlier.
Flipped, based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen and co-written and directed by Rob Reiner, is a remarkable family film that accomplishes something rare: It catches its young protagonists in the act of growing up, of beginning to learn who they are. We see how they are shaped by circumstance and family life, but we also see that on a fundamental level who they are is something that was there from the start.
Like the novel, the film is told from both points of view: first from Bryce’s, then from Juli’s. In an intriguing inversion of the cinematic norm, it’s the first point of view — Bryce’s — that is closer to reality, and the second — Juli’s — that is more subjective and misleading. At least, Juli is the one who imagines things to be other than they are, while Bryce has no such illusions. That’s because Juli is thinking about Bryce, whom she knows little about, while Bryce is only thinking about himself.
There’s so much to like about this sensitive and insightful coming-of-age story that I’m reluctant to get to the bits that don’t work as well. But it’s like the profound lesson that Juli learns from her father, a dreamy underachiever who paints landscapes on weekends: Some people and things are more than the sum of their parts and others are less. Once your eyes are opened to that principle, you can’t help seeing it everywhere.
Flipped takes awhile to get firing on all cylinders. The early scenes are straightforward and not always interesting. The sequence where it really starts to click for me is a family meal at the Bakers’ house.
It begins with Juli’s brothers singing in harmony to the family’s applause. From an exchange at the Loskis’ house involving Bryce’s older sister (who’s as interested in the Baker boys as Juli is in Bryce), we know that Juli’s brothers are planning to cut a demo, a proposal Mr. Loski (a snarky Anthony Edwards) finds as risible as he does everything else involving the Bakers.
There’s a danger at this point that the movie, which straddles two decades, will devolve into a diagram of uptight 1950s’ hypocrisy (the Loskis) vs. bohemian 1960s’ authenticity (the Bakers). A minute later, though, an exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Baker (Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller) takes an unexpected turn, and it becomes clear that the situation is more complex and ambiguous than that. The Baker household is among the more challenging portraits of a happy but flawed home I can think of in any family film.
Later, we see similar ambiguities creep in at the Loski residence, particularly in connection with Mrs. Loski (Rebecca De Mornay). Mr. Loski, alas, is pretty much rotten to the core, despite a fleeting hint of an old regret that might partially account for his bitter disposition.
Without a doubt, the best thing in the film is Juli, who at 7 is the kind of girl that would intimidate any 7-year-old boy, and at 13 is the kind of girl whom an especially sensible 13-year-old boy would recognize as a rare catch. Bryce is not that boy — not yet, anyway.
What’s so special about Juli? She’s smart and mature, but not extraordinarily so. She feels things deeply, but that’s not the key either. I think it’s her capacity for responsibility. She’s a girl who is ready for life, who sees things that need doing and is ready to take them on, to do whatever it takes.
At 7, she volunteers to help the Loskis move in (an offer that Mr. Loski naturally spurns). At 13, sitting in a sycamore tree waiting for the bus, Juli is horrified when a work crew shows up to take the tree down. Though on the brink of tears, Juli is determined to stay in the tree — despite the workmen’s threats to call the police and even to cut down the tree with her in it.
After hatching a half dozen chickens for a science fair, Juli takes on the responsibility of the chickens, not only caring for them, but eventually making rounds to the neighbors selling the eggs. When Bryce makes a cutting remark about the state of the Bakers’ yard, Juli is chagrined, and the yard becomes her next project. This is a young lady who will make a terrific wife and mother.
Where did Juli get this from? Her father feels no responsibility for the yard; as a renter, he feels the yard is the landlord’s affair, and however long they live there, he feels no attachment to the property. Ah, but Mr. Baker has other responsibilities that he takes very seriously, including a mentally retarded brother. Mrs. Baker accepts that responsibility, but resents the cost to their family, not unreasonably so. In this environment of love and conflict, Juli learns such lessons as she can.
I think the movie has insight into Bryce’s bumpy progression. Throughout their childhood, he has thought only of his own feelings of discomfort around Juli and how he can best minimize his exposure to her. What changes that is a crisis in which he hurts Juli’s feelings, thus becoming aware that she has feelings.
Unfortunately, Flipped gives Bryce too many opportunities to let Juli down and too little opportunity to turn it around. I understood going in that Bryce would take time to bloom, and like Juli, I was prepared to wait for him. But we wait too long for too little payoff.
I don’t hold it against Bryce as a person that he’s diffident and rather dull; one can’t expect too much from an adolescent boy, or even a girl. I do hold it against the storytellers that Bryce as a character doesn’t offer more interest. He needed something more to justify his leading role: a hobby, a handicap, a lifelong interest, an embarrassing secret — something.
There is one clear-eyed male at the Loski house who sees how special Juli is. That would be Bryce’s widowed grandfather, Chet Duncan (John Mahoney). Chet says that Juli reminds him of his late wife, which I can completely understand; she reminds me of my wife too. Along with Juli, he’s the best thing in the film.
Juli spends years waiting for her first kiss from Bryce before realizing that he didn’t deserve her. He does improve in the end, and she’ll get that kiss, but unless Bryce surprises me, I hope she gets over him again. Either way, I’m sure she’ll be just fine.
Content advisory: A few instances of profanity and crude language; tense family situations; a couple of slaps, including a father slapping his daughter.