By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Not many 14-year-olds have movies made about their lives. Zach Bonner is an exception, always has been, and that's why Little Red Wagon is such a sweetly inspiring story.
Bonner made his mark at age 7, when he and sister Kelley first rolled a little red wagon through their Valrico neighborhood, collecting supplies for victims of Hurricane Charley. The response and a visit to a relief shelter launched Zach on a continuing quest to end homelessness. Little Red Wagon literally covers his first steps, a 2007 hike from Tampa to Tallahassee, raising funds and awareness of Bonner's cause.
Directed by David Anspaugh (Hoosiers, Rudy), Little Red Wagon is a movie with a heart as big as Zach's and an endlessly wholesome way of expressing it. There isn't much conflict besides a rivalry with Kelley, played by Daveigh Chase, that Zach coined a word to describe in a telephone interview.
"Like with any movie that's based on a true story, it's a little dramatatized, I guess to make it a more interesting," he said. "She's a little mean in the movie but she's a great person in real life."
Little Red Wagon was produced for a reported $5 million by Philanthropy Project, a not-for-profit organization that selected Zach's story from thousands of candidates. Tampa Bay is represented by Charleston, S.C., since the movie was produced in May 2010, before Florida's incentives program was expanded.
Between taking eighth-grade classes online and working on his Little Red Wagon foundation, Zach has been drumming up support for the movie, hoping it will help his cause.
"The movie has incredible potential in creating awareness," he said. A picture is worth a thousand words but a movie is worth so much more. Through a movie we can touch people that maybe don't always read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. It tells them what's involved, but in a way that's entertaining and engaging."
Anspaugh's movie fits that description, with its saccharine style balanced by a few solid performances, including Anna Gunn, poles apart from her Breaking Bad steeliness as Zach's supportive mother Laurie, and Frances O'Connor as a homeless mother in a parallel heart-tugger. It's a nice movie, probably too much so for viewers seeking meatier drama.
Little Red Wagon tells the story of Zach — played by Chandler Canterbury — as a child innocently obsessed with helping others. Zach's constantly clogged voicemail, confusion about where he's supposed to be and 4 a.m. wake-up calls are proof that art is imitating life. But not all of it, he assures.
"I make it a point to still try and be a kid," said a teenager who likes playing baseball and hanging with friends. "I can only do the foundation as long as it's fun and something I enjoy doing. When it stops being fun, it may be time to stop doing it.
"But it has remained fun. I still make the time to go out and be a kid because we're only a kid once."
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Grades: Little Red Wagon B, Zach Bonner A+