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The Independent Critic

Anna Gunn, Daveigh Chase, Frances O'Connor, Chandler Canterbury and Dylan Matzke
David Anspaugh
Patrick Sheane Duncan
Rated PG
103 Mins.
Phase 4 Films (USA)

 "Little Red Wagon" Review 
If you'd spent the hours preceding its world premiere in Indianapolis at the Heartland Film Festival with the cast and crew, as I found myself able to do this past Saturday morning, you may have gotten a glimpse into the passion and commitment that have gone into Little Red Wagon.

About a little boy, Zach Bonner (Chandler Canterbury), who makes a big difference in the world, Little Red Wagon is an inspiring initiative of The Philanthropy Project, an ambitious non-profit initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Produced by three-time award-winning Dr. Michael Guillen, Little Red Wagon is a family friendly film with a mission to inspire people from all walks of life to become philanthropists and to make a difference in the world.

Zach Bonner is a living and breathing youth, despite having a story that sounds like it could have been created by a  Hollywood writer looking for the next inspirational hit film. In 2004, six-year-old Bonner was so touched by the scenes of devastation caused in nearby communities by Hurricane Charley that he uses his little red wagon to collect food, water, clothing and other necessities for those who were left homeless by the storm. His own neighborhood having been spared the expected devastation after the hurricane took a last minute turn up the coast, Zach quickly and relentlessly went into action and, along with his mother (Anna Gunn) and older sister (Daveigh Chase), collected over 27 truck loads of supplies for families.

Zach didn't stop.

Once Zach became increasingly aware of the issue of homelessness, especially among children, his commitment to the issue only grew and out of that commitment the Little Red Wagon Foundation was created as a 501c3 non-profit organization to support his expanding outreach efforts. Zach came up with the idea of distributing "Zach Packs" to homeless children, backpacks filled with many of life's necessities plus, without exception, a toy. Inspired by his own successes in making a difference, Zach becomes determined to take his mission to even greater lengths and sets out on a walk from his hometown in Tampa, Florida to the state capital of Tallahassee with his mother alongside him and his sister driving the support vehicle. While the film itself ends with this walk, the story doesn't end as Zach has now completed other awareness-raising walks including just last year a walk across America. The Little Red Wagon Foundation has distributed thousands of "Zach Packs" while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to help homeless children live higher quality lives.

While the story of Zach is substantial enough for its own film, screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan (Mr. Holland's Opus) and director David Anspaugh (Hoosiers, Rudy) have woven into the fabric of the film the fictional yet inspired by real life story of the recently widowed Margaret Craig (Frances O'Connor) and her son, Jim (Dylan Matzke), who have been left financially destroyed following the death of their husband/father due to cancer. When Margaret's employer shuts down, any hope of financial survival is tossed out the window and, before long, this once upwardly mobile family that lived down the street from Zach is living in their car or anywhere else they can find a bed.

If this all sounds like it may be a bit too much for one film, rest assured that Duncan intertwines the stories beautifully and with a surprising lack of unnecessary histrionics. Either one of these stories could be a film on its own, but together they symbolize the full spectrum of homelessness that it can happen to anyone and, yes, every human being can make a difference in the life of another. These two stories are, indeed, a lot to absorb but it is absolutely vital that they co-exist.

In a family friendly way, Little Red Wagon vividly portrays how one little boy stubbornly overcomes the everyday obstacles that we adults construct that keep us from helping one another ranging from bureaucratic red tape to arrogant and attention-seeking philanthropic peers to the very real strains that exist in our own families. The film largely portrays Zach's outreach as having helped to heal his own families fractures, especially a strained relationship between his mother and sister.

Having conversed with the real life Zach Bonner prior to the screening, Chandler Canterbury's (Repo Men, A Bag of Hammers) performance becomes even more remarkable. Canterbury, who looks nothing like Bonner in real life, captures Zach's level-headed determination yet calm demeanor to perfection. The real life Zach Bonner is simply a relentlessly compassionate, intelligent and giving young man and Canterbury's performance avoids any temptation to add a halo effect to an already inspiring character. Anna Gunn (television's Breaking Bad, Red State) gives a warm yet layered performance as Zach's mother, Laurie, a woman who seems to find hope herself in her son's actions and yet who also is dealing with her own admitted failures with daughter Kelley (Daveigh Chase, television's Big Love). With Canterbury's performance so even keel, it is Chase's performance as the increasingly resentful yet ultimately loving sister that gives the film much of its emotional resonance. Chase and Bonner share remarkably tender, vulnerable scenes that literally make you ache and wish only good things for this family.

While on a certain level the story of Margaret and Jim is a second-tier story in the film, on a huge level it is also the film's sociological foundation. With the exception of an early interaction between the Bonners and the Craigs and a brief reference late in the film, the story of Margaret and Jim is truly a separate story that is beautifully realized thanks to truly masterful performances by Frances O'Connor and newcomer Dylan Matzke. The story itself is simple as Duncan's script takes us through an almost textbook illustration of how a young family can become homeless and how they must survive once they do, but it is how it is brought to life that makes the story so emotionally resonant. O'Connor is simply extraordinary here, embodying a woman who will do anything to protect her son but who is running into obstacle after obstacle as she tries to rebound from her family's setback. O'Connor shows us all the heartbreak, devastation, anger and frustration that a family film will allow, while making it perfectly clear that there are little things that we could do, individually and as a society, to address the issue of homelessness. There's a scene fairly late in the film between O'Connor and the marvelous Dylan Matzke when they've landed in their second shelter that is simply a beautiful, innocent and awe-inspiring scene that also serves to affirm everything that Bonner is trying to do with Little Red Wagon Foundation.

Little Red Wagon fits perfectly within the filmography of Indiana born David Anspaugh, who has spent his life it seems recognizing the power of the human spirit and the ability of one person to do ordinary yet extraordinary things. Anspaugh's patient and inspired touch here allows for high drama and high inspiration to peacefully co-exist while never letting the audience forget that you should leave this film rushing out to hug those you love and, even moreso, determined to do your part to make a difference in the world.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic