When does a boy become a man? Is it when he loses his virginity? Is it when he goes off to college… or war? Is it when he walks down a predetermined number of roads? No, it’s when he first drives a car. So any movie about driving your first car is automatically a coming-of age movie in some way. And if that car is a COP CAR, and you get to fire a gun, oh and if you are ten years old, then you have a finely crafted piece of nostalgia that gets hijacked by a thriller plot on a high-speed road to awesome.

Jon Watts’ fresh film COP CAR is one of the most consistently solid films at Sundance. In fact, currently, it is my top narrative of the fest (I’m writing this at the halfway point). Watts is responsible for writing and directing CLOWN, which made its bloody premiere in Italy last year. He also directed a number of episodes of the Onion News Network and Onions Sportsdome (which was an absolutely brilliant show – can’t believe it got cancelled, sometimes I think Comedy Central has no idea what they are doing). Watts can handle both lighter and darker material.

Co-writer Christopher Ford wrote the Frank Langella starring Robot & Frank. The premise of Cop Car is luminously simple, two ten-year-old boys run away from home and stumble upon an abandoned cop car in the middle of a field. After a spin around the ranch, they set out on the road, not realizing the car belongs to the sheriff (Kevin Bacon in an amazing moustache) who was disposing a dead body. Things get even more complicated when they discover a backseat full of firearms and a man locked in the trunk. Meanwhile, the sheriff is trying to hide his search for his own car, and what ever else he was covering up.

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Cop Car cruises along in the first half, allowing the audience to enjoy the exhilaration of the boys. Their banter rings true, daring each other to cuss and shaming each other into taking risks. It’s clear from the onset that these boys are not ready to leave home, they still have a lot to learn, and the events of the film will certainly provide them that experience. Their lack of understanding about how a gun works gives the film one of its most tension-laden scenes as the whole time you feel at any moment they might blow their own head off. Both actors (newcomers James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) shine, with Travis (Freedson-Jackson) dominating Harrison (Wellford) a little bit, giving Harrison a longer journey to becoming a man. Bacon is also a trip, he plays the sheriff with perfect portions of sleaze and cultivated rage. He is able to turn on the charm when he needs it, but also rule with menace when he can.

What works so well about the film is that the tone gets darker and darker as the film races on, a metaphor for the growing up that Travis and Harrison are having to do fast. A comic character from the first half (a woman who the boys almost hit on the road) returns as a dramatic character in the second half. And of course, like all new noir, the film degenerates into blood and violence, which plays especially strong through the eyes of the boys. But before that, the film fills the screen with nostalgia and freedom, its every boy’s dream.

If I had to find something to be critical about it is just that Kevin Bacon, who is so great in this role, doesn’t have enough interaction with the rest of the world. Not just the kids, but there is this scene where he steals a car – he’s all alone. If I was giving script notes I would say, what if he has to steal his ex wife’s car?

There is another scene where he goes home and in frustration throws a plant. His only audience is his dogs. What if he had a son of his own, sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework? I would have liked to see more of this character being forced to engage in dialogue with other characters. However, this is a note simply because Bacon is so good, and I just want more.

Cop Car is still seeking distribution, but should not be long in that process. This film is an easy sell, and despite the violence and language, is even one the family can enjoy.

Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film-by-film reaction of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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