Mostly having written for TV, Tony McNamara is sinking his feet into the world of movies and directing with his second feature Ashby. With feel-good dramedies (the name should be coined and given its own official genre), there is always the possibility that one will override the other. Be it comedy or drama, there needs to be some sort of balance in order to maintain that ultimately feel-good essence the film tries to create. And although the film has its hits and misses, Ashby is very clearly entertaining, enjoyable, and boasts great performances by rising actor Nat Wolff and Mickey Rourke.
Ed (Nat Wolff) is new in town, the location set in an unnamed place in Virginia, and is pretty much starting his senior year off with no friends, no hobbies, and a mother (Sarah Silverman) trying to find love after her split with Ed’s dad. Trying to figure out where he fits in the world, Ed befriends his very private, terminally ill ex-CIA neighbor Ashby (Mickey Rourke). Notably freaking out after finding out what Ashby did for a living, the two bond while Ed becomes Ashby’s confidant and father figure. As the both of them stumble through their own lives, Ed has a lot to look forward to, like possibly being with eccentric classmate Eloise (Emma Roberts), while Ashby is left making peace with his life and making amends on his own terms.
There are some things to enjoy about Ashby, but they’re overshadowed by the fact that the film could have used more polishing. The film is filed as a coming-of-age story, but there isn’t very much coming-of-age elements. Mostly, these elements and themes are sitting in the background waiting to be picked up. McNamara tries to do too much and speaks to the generational gap (and there are a lot of culture-savvy comments dropped every so often), but isn’t very attentive to why he’s doing so. Ed is a character like so many teenagers of privilege, all trying to find themselves but with no real obstacles in their way save for their own self-doubt.
Even Ed’s inclusion to the football team seems out of place in the scope of things, as though McNamara is trying too hard to make him fit in with the “high school dream,” but still have him not be a stereotype of a teenager. It’s an odd touch that the film could have done without and remained the same. The part of Ashby being a former assassin also doesn’t sit right in many ways. It’s there, Ed (and the audience) acknowledge this fact, but it’s ultimately used to make Rourke look more like a badass type. Assassin or not, McNamara could have used any other background story to present us with a hardened character that doesn’t need to include further assassinations. It just doesn’t blend itself naturally with the tone the film appeals to.
Nat Wolff, however, further proves himself to be an actor to watch out for. So far his career has included several popular films (including both John Green adaptations, The Fault in Our Stars and this year’s Paper Towns), but he most definitely proves here that he’s capable of helping to carry a film and filter through the emotional layers of his character. Mickey Rourke is believable as Ashby, a man with an endlessly unhappy and serious disposition. The two of them share good scenes together and they react to each other well. Sarah Silverman is very much the supporting character here and it would have been nice to have her emotional background explored further. Emma Roberts is the girl Ed likes, but there isn’t a lot about her to know other than the fact that she’s smart enough to run you through a MRI machine.
Ultimately, it’s not very clear what McNamara is trying to get at. The trouble with the film is that there is no major character conflict, and barely any other kind of conflict at all. It has many enjoyable moments and the lead character interactions are great, but it’s not enough to sustain a movie where McNamara is almost torn about where he really wants the film to go. Ashby has occasional heartwarming moments but isn’t well-rounded enough to understand its own journey.