2003 was a big year for Shia. Even Stevens aired its final episode, and he appeared in a TV movie, three fairly big theatrical movies, plus one not-so-big theatrical movie–this one.
Certain films mean different things at different stages of your life. You watch something at too young of an age and it may not resonate with you the same way as if you had watched it as an adult. Back in 2003, when I first watched The Battle of Shaker Heights, I loved it. Mainly because Shia LaBeouf was the star. The movie was his second starring role in a feature, following Holes. His TV show, and career launching point, Even Stevens, was and still is my favorite show of all time and at that point I would, and will still, watch anything that he’s in. So to say that Shaker Heights was a little over my head at the ripe age of 14 is an understatement. It’s also slightly the wrong phrase. I would say that I just simply wasn’t invested in what the movie was trying to say, but more of how entertaining it was and how great a performance Shia gave. And it’s truly great, but I’ll get to that later.
Battle of Shaker Heights follows a high school senior, Kelly Ernswiler (LaBeouf), who has a frustrating home life. His relationship with his parents is rocky at best, as his father is a recovering drug addict, who Kelly blames for robbing him of his childhood. Kelly’s hobbies include war reenactments, which is where he meets Bart (Elden Henson), whose home life is appealing to Kelly. Bart comes from a wealthy family and his parents are encouraging to Bart’s enthusiasm in the military. However, Bart doesn’t see it this way since his parents have created an ideal for him and try to force him into their own perfect little world. This story arc is a typical case of “the grass is always greener” trope.
While inserting himself into Bart’s life, Kelly falls for Bart’s older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart), who is in the process of planning her wedding.
We see Kelly constantly rejecting reality because of what’s going on in his own life at home. Whether it be reenacting war battles, or convincing himself that he has a shot with Tabby. He muddles the lines between fantasy and reality. Kelly is wise, but still naive to the bigger picture.
The movie has fantastic comedic sensibilities, intentionallbattle of shaker heightsy juxtaposing humor with poignancy to punctuate the tonal gray areas of adolescence and life in general. Some may see the dichotomy as jarringly disjointed, but to me it fits perfectly.
And carrying the whole thing is LaBeouf. I honestly can’t imagine anyone else bringing such a personality to the character of Kelly. In fact, if it were anyone else, he would’ve been a completely different character altogether. To the point where the film might have even been unwatchable. The Battle of Shaker Heights is a good movie regardless, but LaBeouf brings a charisma that you can’t create. And he’s insanely funny even when he doesn’t have to be. The dialogue isn’t always amazing, but it’s functional. And Shia’s quips are rock solid.
It’s impressive when a movie can be powerful and thoughtful without resorting to depressing us first. All these things made less sense to me when I last watched this film. I was the same age as Kelly back then and didn’t understand that what he was doing was unacceptable–much like the character, himself. Over a decade later, I have more perspective and can see this story with the depth it’s meant to have. I loved it back then, and now that I fully understand it, I love it even more.