Little Red Wagon is the type of film that will have reviewers scrambling for a thesaurus, trying to figure out how many different ways they can wax about its earnestness. The story of how Zach Bonner of Tampa, Florida becomes a disaster-relief activist reads like a socially minded Pay It Forward or a “What Would Jesus Do?” parable without all the religious talk. The simple narrative and self-consciously “PG” script will no doubt prompt Lifetime movie comparisons from some (sarcastic) circles, but a strong cast and crew keep the film from succumbing to excessive bathos.
The biggest weakness is that there simply isn’t much story to develop a movie around. Bonner’s story makes for many a feel-good local newscast, whether he is collecting water for hurricane victims, wheedling wholesale yo-yos from a local merchant, or walking to the state capital to raise awareness for…something or other. Zach’s intentions are good, and while the film evidences some mild curiosity about the details (Zach and his mom struggle to figure out the paper work necessary to qualify for non-profit status needed to use cash donations), there never develops any real conflict to give the episodic relief efforts a differentiated narrative significance.
To compensate, the film gestures at various subplots. There are hints of sibling jealousy and some domestic strife between Zach’s mother and sister, but nothing so serious that can’t be resolved with cooler heads and heartfelt conversation. A “B” story involving a newly homeless mother and her son puts a human face on the sufferers that Zach is helping. It avoids simplistic answers, but it, too, feels more illustrative than dramatic.
What ultimately makes Little Red Wagon passable rather than just well-intentioned is the acting. Each performer gives a restrained, toned down performance. Chandler Canterbury gives Zach a wholesome quality but avoids any mugging or hint of precociousness. (Director David Anspaugh helps, too, with judicious use of reaction shots that keep Zach or others from having to verbalize everything.) Anna Gunn plays Zach’s mom credibly, gradually shifting from suprised at to supportive of her son’s efforts. She has one rousing “I’m proud of you” speech, but it is short and saved to the end. Frances O’Connor, saddled with the harder job of having to interject some darkness and desperation into the script paints a credible picture of a woman putting the best face on things for her son while having to deal with her own rising panic.
Little Red Wagon ends with the now seemingly obligatory real-life footage of the people upon whom the movie is based. There are a number of places where the film feels conventional, but that footage is the only place where it feels lazy.
When the film is over, viewers may feel as though they have been preached at more than entertained or challenged, but it isn’t a bad message to hear.