The Orphan and the Misfit
Good nature, it has an amazing power to forgive, what I'm on about is the TV movie "You've Got a Friend" or "Derby" as it is also known. Here we have a movie full of faults, none more so than the story is meant to be set in the 1970s yet some of the fashions certainly don't match the era. But because this is a good natured story about a 12 year old orphan befriending a town misfit whilst they work together on building a boxcar the various faults, the manufactured sentimentality and the occasional bout of cheesy acting end up not mattering so much. And by the time "You've Got a Friend" has come to a typically positive conclusion where even bad guys become decent you will have been uplifted by a slice of innocence.
When both his parents die young Bobby Graham (Dylan McLaughlin) finds himself taken in by his Uncle Jeff (Jason Brooks) and Aunt Gayle (Kate Connor) who he doesn't really know as Jeff and his brother didn't see eye to eye. It makes things awkward as Jeff unintentionally takes out his grievances on young Bobby and when Bobby asks if they can build a boxcar together the blunt No makes Bobby miserable. That is until he decides to go and see town misfit Jim Kliekan (John Schneider) who was once a boxcar champ but ever since he returned from Vietnam has kept himself to himself. Persistently Bobby persuades Jim to help and slowly the orphan and the misfit bond as they work together on building a boxcar.
Whilst movies about boxcar racing are not that common the actual themes which "You've Got a Friend" covers are familiar. We have 12 year old Bobby who having lost both parents finds himself feeling alone as he doesn't really know his relatives. We also have the story of Uncle Jeff who had issues with Bobby's father which in turn makes things difficult between him and Bobby. There is a school bully who has a very dominant father as well as a kindly teacher plus of course Jim, the town's misfit who the kids are scared off because all of the stories made up about him eating children. It is in many ways very cliche but not bad for being so because the familiarity makes "You've Got a Friend" easy to watch and enjoy its innocent charms rather than looking for gritty drama.
Now that innocent charm comes from Bobby befriending Vietnam Vet and one time Boxcar champ Jim Kliekan who before the war was the town hero but returned a darker more solitary man. There is a lovely innocence as to the way not only Bobby wins Jim around, refusing to take no for an answer when he wants his help, but also the way Jim warms to Bobby almost to the point he treats him like a son. It does help that John Schneider turns on the charm as Jim and he plays a character who turns out to be the ideal father figure, praising and encouraging Bobby, supervising him when he uses his tools to build the Boxcar and allowing Bobby to work things out with a little guidance. It is such a charming performance from John Schneider that it would take a cold heart not to enjoy what he delivers be it the comically curmudgeonly early on or the father figure during the second half.
But John Schneider is not the only one who delivers charm and despite the awkwardness Jason Brooks as Uncle Jeff does a nice job of being a good guy struggling to deal with instant parenthood as does Kate Connor who plays Aunt Gayle. Add to this Bitty Schram who plays Bobby's very understanding, and to be honest loveable teacher Miss Nelson and you have a lot of niceness going on, yes fake niceness but still niceness which is enjoyable. Talking of fake you also have Mark Rolston as Dennis the demanding father of Tommy who pushes him to win at all costs, it is false because lets just say there are no bad people by the time the Boxcar race has finished.
What this all boils down to is that "You've Got a Friend" is simply a feel good little drama which trades on innocence, charm and nicety and to be honest it works because there is something quite charming in the way young Bobby bonds with town misfit Jim. Ironically if this was a movie made for the big screen I wouldn't be so kind, but this is a TV movie perfect for those who are looking for some uplifting innocence for a weekday afternoon.