Facing Down the Bullies: “Angus” and “My Bodyguard”

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There’s been a lot of talk about movie anniversaries this year, but two of the movies that have been left out of the discussion are two of my childhood favorites. There’s the 1995 teen drama “Angus,” and the 1980 “My Bodyguard.” Oddly enough, both films deal with the idea of coming of age, surviving high school, and learning to deal with a specific kind of bully. Both films also confront the idea that sometimes staring down the bullies is a right of passage we all must confront at one time or another. And yet, both films have been off the radar for a very long time.

Patrick Read Johnson’s “Angus” is a charming and compelling dramedy about a young overweight boy named Angus, who’s spent his entire life being hassled for his weight problems. He’s a good spirited and strong young man who has grown up around an obnoxious school jock named Rick, and pines after his girlfriend Melissa. Angus is a very unique and likable protagonist who spends most of the movie trying to navigate through the last days of his school year leading in to his prom, where he’ll transfer to another school. Provided he doesn’t get in to a conflict with Rick. Rick is anxious to make his final days hell, though. Most films with overweight protagonists often present the illusion of a positive central character, but “Angus” really draws a flawed but strong central figure that is still growing up.

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Despite spending his years being mocked and made fun of, he persists in his good nature and worldly wisdom, even building his courage to pursue the girl of his dreams at the behest of his cranky but lovable grandfather, as played by George C. Scott. “Angus” is a definite favorite from 1995 that speaks to the side of me that loves underdog tales. Angus just keeps facing his problems time and time again for the sole reason that he has no other choice but to face them head on. He has no real male role model, and his widowed mother (Kathy Bates) does her best to be his shoulder to cry on.

There’s an interesting narration in the opening of the film where Angus explains that the more he punched out his bully Rick, the more handsome and popular he’d become. Oddly enough the more pain and torment Angus endures makes him a stronger and more adamant young man who can literally face anything; even the death of his beloved grandfather mid-way. Charlie Talbert’s performance is underrated as he depicts Angus as someone you can really root for. He is just someone who has to get up and fight the more people try to push him down, and you want to see him excel and win over the girl. His star turn was sadly pushed aside in favor of co-star James Van Der Beek who’d gain instant fame in the late nineties with his series “Dawson’s Creek.”

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All things considered Van Der Beek is very good here as a grade A prick, who delights in hurting other people. The script for “Angus” thankfully never makes light of Angus’ physical condition. Surely it’s a factor that holds him back in preparing for the prom, and it’s a constant source of ammunition for classmates that want to hurt him, but he’s never turned in to a clown as in, say, a movie like “Heavyweights” which did more stereotyping of overweight people than actually rooting for them.

The ultimate conflict for Angus becomes if he should go to another school after the upcoming dance allowing him to escape the torture of bully Rick, or if running away is any kind of answer at all. Bullies are everywhere, and there will always be a Rick. Despite a cheesy climax, “Angus” still holds up and should be celebrated more often. The same goes for “My Bodyguard” which is a slightly cheesy but rousing teen drama about stereotyping and reputations. It’s an entertaining and charming dramedy, and something of the crowd pleasing variety I was introduced to by my father when I was a teenager. I somehow always manage to cross paths with it again and again. My appreciation for it grows more every time.

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Chris Makepeace (Of “Meatballs” fame) plays Clifford, the son of a hotel manager who begins attending a new high school. After making a smart remark to local bully Melvin Moody (A very young Matt Dillon) during class, he becomes his prime target for torture. Melvin makes Clifford a deal that if he pays him everyday, he won’t bully him. Clifford, of course, declines and spends most of his school days completely avoiding and fleeing from Melvin. Clifford learns about enigmatic student, Ricky Linderman, a huge and silent classmate who everyone, even Melvin, is terrified of for his reputation of murdering his brother years before. In hopes of finally getting Melvin off his back, Clifford makes friends with Ricky, and offers to pay him to become his bodyguard.

A young Adam Baldwin is fantastic as the silent large classmate who begrudgingly becomes Clifford’s bodyguard, but soon begins to bond with him when Clifford decides to find out if Ricky is really the murderous psychopath that everyone says he is. A lot of “My Bodyguard” is about Clifford getting past the reputation and terrible gossip, realizing that Ricky is an actual person whose life isn’t as dangerous and violent as everyone thinks it is. Events take a turn for the worst when word gets out about Ricky’s past, prompting Melvin to hire his own bodyguard. Soon enough both young men have to face their own bullies, whether they like it or not. “My Bodyguard” is mostly known as a lower budget drama with Matt Dillon before he became a screen star, but the film is mostly held up by the chemistry between Makepeace and Baldwin.

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Particularly there’s Baldwin who keeps the character of Ricky tragic and interesting until the very end. Much like “Angus,” the 1980 “My Bodyguard” is very much a serious drama with hints of comedy about facing down your bullies and confronting problems, for the better or the worse. “My Bodyguard” is cheesy in some instances, but gets big points for drawing complex characters, and unfolding a very exciting climax in where Clifford and Ricky have literally no other choice but to fist fight their individual bullies in the park, and battle for their self respect and confidence. It’s a fight scene that’s rousing, exciting, and very funny all around. It’s interesting that a film like “Breakfast Club” was widely celebrated this year, while these two other strong teen dramedies were somewhat ignored.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re as good as John Hughes at his best, but they’re damn good drama comedies that also speak about unique teenage protagonists having to overcome a personal conflict, and a bully who promises to grow violent if they don’t step up and face them down. The good thing about both films though is that they’re not so much about beating up your bullies, as confronting them and using them to garner a sense of empowerment and confidence to take on adulthood.