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McCanlies beams as 'Alabama Moon' debuts at AFF

Chris Garcia

Austin filmmaker Tim McCanlies was smiling like the birthday boy in the lobby of the Paramount on Sunday, 30 minutes before the afternoon premiere of his new family-friendly drama, "Alabama Moon," during the Austin Film Festival. He was awaiting the unveiling.

McCanlies is always smiling — his good cheer and bonhomie are famous — but this was different. He glowed. He looked jazzed, antsy with the nervous excitement of watching one's movie for the first time with an audience. Many in the crew were there, as was co-star Clint Howard, who was also at the festival for Saturday night's marquee screening of big brother Ron's "Apollo 13."

"Alabama Moon," based on Watt Key's 2006 young adult novel, is an unabashedly old-fashioned coming-of-age story shot through with action, comedy and a gut-punching melancholy.

Lushly shot by University of Texas grad Jimmy Lindsey in the bright and shadowy woodsy splendor of Louisiana (where tax incentives for filmmakers are irresistible — hear that, Texas?), the movie chronicles the swirling, funny and heartbreaking adventures of 12-year-old Moon Blake (Jimmy Bennett, who played young James T. Kirk in this year's "Star Trek" reboot). Moon grew up in the forest with his stubborn papa, a recalcitrant anti-government survivalist who thinks he's raising his boy right but is really robbing him of a childhood. Living off the land, fishing, trapping and hunting, Moon, a feral, shaggy-haired kid who resembles a preteen Dave Grohl, doesn't realize his isolation until his father dies and he has to meet civilization head on.

The movie is low-budget and often looks it, including some spotty acting among the child performers (though Bennett gives a witty, self-possessed turn). But McCanlies knows the emotional terrain of young people, the ecstasies, dreams, terrors. He kicks up what is a sometimes frustratingly simplistic story into a vaguely mythic tale rife with emotional complexity.

With a broad, cartoonish wink, Clint Howard plays Moon's tenacious nemesis, a bumbling, ornery Southern sheriff with a vendetta for a boy who constantly foils his lame attempts at capture. John Goodman, always a pleasure, co-stars as Moon's angelic benefactor.

"Alabama Moon," which screened as part of the festival's Target Family Film Series (children under 15 get in free to these shows), is McCanlies' fourth film as director, and the first film he's directed that he didn't also write. (His other directorial credits: "Dancer Texas Pop. 81," "Secondhand Lions" and "The 2 Bobs." He also created the hit series "Smallville" and wrote "The Iron Giant.")

During the post-show question-and-answer session with Howard, McCanlies sort of apologized for shooting in Louisiana by noting that he "brought everyone from Austin that I could."

The movie was made in a hasty four weeks with "a TV movie budget and a TV movie schedule," McCanlies said.

McCanlies is used to waiting years between script and screen, but because he didn't write the film (he did do rewrites), production moved rapidly. When Howard was approached to play the heavy, he said he had scant time for contemplation, but liked the script enough to jump in.

"I'm a professional actor, and gainful employment is something I'm always interested in," he told the crowd.

Howard, wearing a Steelers jersey, said that after careful deliberation he elected to play the doofus sheriff as "Barney Fife on steroids."

A child actor on classic TV shows like "Gentle Ben," "Star Trek" and "The Andy Griffith Show," Howard said he empathized with the young performers in "Alabama Moon."

"I certainly understood their plight," he said. "I was almost like an uncle on the set."

And while he played many scenes with Bennett, the younger actor's short schedule (school, etc.) forced Howard to play a lot of scenes with Bennett's double — a young woman.

"Almost any time you see the back of Jimmy's head," McCanlies explained, "it's her."

In a both strange and, for what it says about contemporary film distribution, sad move, the filmmakers have posted an online petition beseeching American distributors to get "Alabama Moon" into theaters. If you're all for that, you can sign the petition at www.petitiononline.com/almoon98.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649