With more than a passing resemblance to To Kill A Mockingbird, thirtysomethmg co-creator Herskovitz's long-delayed directorial debut comes across like The Wonder Years on downers.
Set in 1972 Oakland, it is the always affectionate, occasionally poignant and funny, but surprisingly downbeat tale of 12-year-old Jack (Steinmiller) as he tries to cope with the loss of his recently deceased mother, and settle into a new neighbourhood and school with his irrepressible but mourning alcoholic father (DeVito) and three-year-old brother Dylan.
Dad is the wacky host of a late-night movie monster show - fitting in nicely with the confronting-the-monster-within theme Herskovitz hammers home with all the subtlety of a neon billboard in Piccadilly Circus - who, when he's not draining a bottle of Smirnoff, is enthusiastically entertaining the enraptured local kids.
Warmly-rendered scenes of familial bonding and touching sepia-hazed flashbacks of mom (Andrea Marcovicci) are interspersed with young Jack engaging in prankdom against the local loony, Norman (Sinise), dating his first girlfriend, and venting his churning early adolescent spleen rather cruelly against his cherubic brother. When Norman, who turns out to be far more diabolical than anyone imagined, kidnaps Dylan in a perversely dark plot twist, however, Jack is squeezed through the mother of all guilt wringers.
After way too many years of sick-making Hollywood moppets who reel off one-liners like professional stands ups, Steinmiller is a refreshing jolt of naturalism, and a reminder that those years can be hell under any circumstances, while DeVito, sporting amusingly abundant 70s thatch, is in his element as the devoted but brooding father. Herskovitz hasn't entirely out-grown his TV roots, but even the unattractive TV suburban sitcom look can't suppress the film's endearing appeal and its wry observations about life in 70s America.