When Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back in 1884, he prefaced the novel with a wry warning: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” This was Twain’s jab at literary types and their tendency to agonize over a text’s every last syllable in the pursuit of meaning, though he knew, of course, the meaning was there, because he damn well wrote meaning into his words. He wanted his story to be enjoyed and not dissected. So he led off with droll caveats to put a smile on readers’ faces and persuade them not to take the book, or him, too seriously.
Brothers Aaron and Adam Nee use Twain’s preamble to similar effect in the opening title card of Band of Robbers, their second directorial effort. They want their film to stand on its own merit, though that’s kind of a tough goal to achieve given the whole thing is basically a modernized retelling of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; every smarty pants who paid attention in high school English will inevitably pore over Band of Robbers and launch misguided comparisons between the Nees’ movie and Twain’s immortal tome. But that’s their damage. Band of Robbers is a delight, as an ode to Twain and as a story of two men doomed to live lives of perpetual adolescent fantasizing. Ever wonder what Tom Sawyer might look like in the mold of a 20-something millennial slacker? Then this film is for you.
Band of Robbers begins as a grown-up Huck (a never better Kyle Gallner) is released from prison and into the custody of Tom (Adam Nee himself), who somehow has managed to find the focus and discipline necessary to become a cop. Tom’s ambitions stopped right up to him getting the badge, though, because he’s a cop in title only; adulthood hasn’t robbed him of his childlike worldview, or his need to scheme up shenanigans. He’s cooked up a good one, in fact, to celebrate Huck’s return, a complicated caper that involves thieving from thieves: It’s the hunt for Murrel’s treasure, an operation that has as many goofy code names as it does twists and turns, and which necessarily goes off the rails by running the boys afoul of Injun Joe (a flat-out terrifying Stephen Lang).
Failure is the order of the day here, after all. Grown-up life is unkind to poor Tom, whose prized possession is either his police-issued sidearm or his minivan, and who counts his ex-fiancée’s now-husband among his current pack of chums. Arguably, life hasn’t been especially nice to Huck, either, but Huck has perspective that Tom lacks, and so the vicissitudes of being older and wiser (in Tom’s case, just the former) don’t hit him quite as hard as they do his friend. If all of that sounds depressing, well, it is, but Band of Robbers glazes over Tom’s ennui with comic pluck. The guy just won’t let his spirit be tamped down by reality, a couple decades out of his youth. You’ll want to punch him, but you’ll want to hug him after.
Frankly, there’s no reason why any of this should work. Turning two of the most famous protagonists in post-Civil War literature into unmoored generational losers sounds like the worst kind of hipster fan fiction. In truth, Band of Robbers is like a loose blend of Brothers Bloom-era Rian Johnson and Bottle Rocket-era Wes Anderson, set in the Adi Shankar Bootleg Universe, but if that sounds horrific on paper, it gels wonderfully in practice. It helps immensely that the Nees know their Twain—not just the characters, like Widow Douglas, Ben Rogers and Joe Harper, but the tongue-in-cheek tone, too—and also that they’ve made Band of Robbers in tacit acknowledgment of the fact that most of their viewers probably aren’t quite as well-versed. Everything here clicks even if you don’t know Tom from Adam.
You can credit that feat to the stellar cast, though naming standouts here is difficult: Everybody is on point, from the leading duo of Gallner and Nee, to the comedic sidekick duo of Hannibal Buress and Matthew Gray Gubler, to Melissa Benoist, who shows up to play Becky Thatcher, because a Tom Sawyer yarn without her just isn’t worth it. (And as the Jim stand-in, Daniel Edward Mora is heartbreakingly human.) But as strong as the talent is in front of the camera, consider the talent behind it even more. The Nees know their stuff, whether they’re setting up a punch line (of which Band of Robbers has many) or composing countless lovely shots in widescreen. They’ve made a film that’s as hilarious as it is beautiful. As Huck himself might say, it’s nothin‘ but magic.
Directors: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee
Writers: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee
Starring: Adam Nee, Kyle Gallner, Hannibal Buress, Matthew Gray Gubler, Melissa Benoist, Stephen Lang, Daniel Edward Mora
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.