Will Freeman is a the character we suspected has been tucked behind the veneer of the superficial personalities embodied by Hugh Grant in many of his films. He is, as James Berardinelli so neatly describes, "the ultimate slacker. Living off the royalties of his one-hit-wonder father's Christmastime jingle 'Santa's Supersleigh', Will is proud of never having had a job or, indeed, having done much of anything. He's not interested in a serious relationship--casual sex and one-night stands are his forté. Then, one day, he makes a mistake. On the prowl for easy female prey, he ventures into a single parents' group meeting. Soon, he is dating a woman who is babysitting for her friend's son, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult). This wouldn't mean much to Will, except that Marcus takes a liking to him and decides that Will might be the perfect match for his emotionally disturbed mother, Fiona (Toni Collette). Then the strangest thing happens--Will and Marcus strike up an unusual friendship. But complications ensue when Will falls for another single mother (Rachel Weisz) and wants Marcus to pretend to be his son."
There it is--a simple, even familiar, plot line. However, what draws us into this film based on a novel by Nick Hornby (his work also was the premise for High Fidelity), what hooks us is the realization that we are looking at 2 children--one is truly a child, Marcus, while other is a 38-year old child, Will. Will has every boredom-eliminating toy imaginable, yet is lonely, seemingly incapable of thinking of anyone other than himself. In a futile pretence of squeezing some sort of meaning into his empty life, Will divides his existence into half-hour increments and vows never to mean anything to anyone. He declares himself to be an island, and ponders, "How do people manage to fit in a full-time job?" He looks at life as "the Will show," which is not an "ensemble drama." He is in every way clueless, selfish, and immature.
The irony of the story is that Marcus, who scratches his way through a bullied life at school and an emotionally terrorized life at home (his depressed mother is suicidal), knows that the one thing he desperately needs is one stable parent. Ok, an older person who looks like a parent. And, yes, it's ok that he happens to be rich. Marcus has the maturity to press through Will's immaturity to make the father-son connection stick. That is the heart of this charming film.
The name, Will Freeman, says something to us about the commentary this character makes about our lives and priorities. Will has the appearance of freedom. He can do what he will. He is an Everyman. He is the caricature of what is held up as the icon of success. He has arrived materially, but his soul remains lost in the woods. Not only is he a lost soul, but he has a terrible time understanding the real dilemma of his condition--he has bought into the pretense of life so deeply he has mistaken it for the real thing. Marcus' life is a surreal rollercoaster and a prison at the same time. He wants to be free. He wants to be found. But he knows that it must come as a gift from someone who is willing to love him.
This story parallels the classic Beauty and the Beast tale in which the Beast has to learn that he is a beast. But Will, the teen-idol beast in this film, represents much of what we as a culture value and aspire to be--at first glimpse, he doesn't look beastly. But his bored life is laughable, comic, and so are our lives when we chase what he chases.
About a Boy, directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, teases out the meaning of Jesus' words: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). When Will and Marcus give to each other and receive from one another the gift of honest and mature friendship, we cheer.