Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) charms as a bullied, self-aware teen enduring a vacation in the Catskills. (Great Point Media)
Reporter

Rating: 3.5 stars

Like the sweetly self-conscious protagonist of the movie “Measure of a Man” — 14-year-old Bobby Marks, who worries about his weight while trying to navigate a summer filled with bullying and life lessons — there is a lot to love in this gently funny and wise little movie. Based on Robert Lipsyte’s semi-autobiographical 1977 young-adult novel “One Fat Summer,” the film will speak most directly to teens who, like its hero and wryly self-aware narrator, might be concerned about their physical appearance. At the same time, its story, which also deals tangentially with class tensions, religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice and homophobia, has as much to say to those kids’ parents and grandparents, who should find the film’s message as uplifting — and its unassuming central character as charming — as young people do.

Screenwriter David Scearce’s follow-up to the 2009 Oscar nominee “A Single Man” relocates the action of Lipsyte’s book from the civil-rights-era 1950s to the post-Vietnam 1970s, retaining the setting of an Upstate New York lakeside resort in the Catskills, where Bobby (Blake Cooper) and his family have a vacation cabin for the season. It is there that Bobby — one of the scorned “summer people,” in the eyes of some resentful locals — encounters bullying in the form of a sullen townie named Willie (Beau Knapp).

If Knapp’s Vietnam War veteran with a violent past is a bit heavy on cliche, his character arc nevertheless allows for some surprises. And Knapp’s performance, while one-dimensional at times, is counterbalanced by Cooper’s subtlety and unforced charisma. The young actor, so good as the portly, doomed Chuck in “The Maze Runner,” never asks for our sympathy, instead seeking — and getting — recognition for a deeply nuanced portrayal.

Over the course of the film, whose period setting is evoked by songs from the Marmalade, Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel and other off-the-beaten-track tracks, Bobby’s victimization by Willie is made worse by peripheral stressors. Bobby’s parents (convincingly drawn by Judy Greer and Luke Wilson) are experiencing strains in their marriage. He is protective of his older sister (Liana Liberato), who has embarked on a summer fling with a hunky beach-club employee (Luke Benward). And his best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) — whose oversize nose made her a fellow outcast among the beautiful people who use “summer” as a verb — has disappeared back to New York City for a few weeks.

Although “Measure of a Man” is less gut-wrenching than director Jim Loach’s only previous theatrical film, “Oranges and Sunshine” — about the cruel fate of unwanted children shipped from England to Australia during the United Kingdom’s mid-20th-century “child migrant” program — the British filmmaker shows himself to have an affinity for tales of the abuse of power.

But Bobby has a savior of sorts. A wealthy older doctor and fellow summer person (Donald Sutherland) takes the boy under his wing, offering him a job tending to his property while dispensing the kind of avuncular — even paternal — tough love that Bobby’s father seems incapable of. Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn has much insight about standing up to bullies, for reasons that reveal themselves late in the film, yet his wisdom is less specifically useful than brutally frank. However you decide to act, he tells Bobby — avoidance, turning the other cheek, fighting back — you will inevitably end up wondering whether you made the wrong decision.

Although that sounds vague, even unhelpful, it’s one of the reasons “Measure of a Man” is actually so good. As the title of this complex tale hints, worth isn’t determined by waist size or easy solutions, but by a man’s ability — or, in this case, a boy’s — to live with the uncertainty of his choices.

PG-13. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains mature thematic material, including some intense bullying, teen drinking, sexuality, smoking and strong language, including ethnic slurs. 100 minutes.

PG-13. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains mature thematic material, including some intense bullying, teen drinking, sexuality, smoking and strong language, including ethnic slurs. 100 minutes.