When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town Movie Poster Image
Coming-of-age movie has some emotionally intense scenes.
  • PG
  • 2006
  • 85 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Through discussion and example, this film shows young characters learning to be considerate and empathetic toward those they consider to be "different."

Positive Role Models & Representations

In spite of engaging in some bad behavior along the way -- getting into a fight with his best friend, stealing a truck, and yelling at his father -- Toby is essentially a nice kid who is going through growing pains.


A beloved character dies, and the sorrow and grief of the family and friends when they are informed of this death is shown in heart wrenching detail. Mild peril, as a boy trying to cross a rickety ladder between two silos nearly falls when the ladder begins to break. Two best friends get into a physical altercation in a lake. Bullies kick at the trailer door where an overweight boy lives while calling him names; the two lead boys in the movie retaliate by throwing rocks at the bullies.


Mild preteen kissing and flirtation.


On occasion, preteens use words like "sucks," "son of a bitch," "fat-ass," and "dammit." When a pretty girl walks by and smiles at one of the main preteen characters, his friend tells him "She wants you." 


The Rock Star Games logo appears in one of the preteen's bedrooms through posters hanging on his walls.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The owner of the local diner frequently appears intoxicated, sipping from a flask while mumbling.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is a 2003 coming-of-age movie that deals with some emotional topics that could be difficult for some kids. For instance, a beloved "big brother" figure in the movie dies in war, and the sorrow and grief of the family and friends when they are informed of his death is shown in heart wrenching detail. Also, a tween boy wrestles with the difficulties he has over the possibility that his mother might not come back after leaving their small Texas town in the hopes of becoming a famous country singer. And then there's Zachary Beaver, a morbidly obese boy who seems to be exploited as a freak show act by his legal guardian. There's also some profanity used by tweens, including like "sucks," "son of a bitch," "fat-ass," and "dammit."

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What's the story?

Toby (Jonathan Lipnicki) and Cal are precocious 12-year-olds living in Granger, Texas. They're starting to like girls, Toby's mother (Jane Krakowski) is leaving him and his father (Eric Stoltz) to try and become a famous country singer, and Cal's older brother is about to leave to join the Army and fight in war. As if these changes weren't enough, a mysterious trailer arrives in a vacant lot across from the diner where Toby's mother used to work. A carnival barker sells tickets to step inside the trailer to see "The Fattest Boy in the World." His name is Zachary Beaver, and when Toby and Cal first see him, they gawk as much as the rest of the townspeople, but when the carnival barker disappears for several days to recruit more performers for his traveling sideshow, the Sheriff insists that Toby and Cal befriend Zachary before he is taken into foster care. When they learn that Zachary does not want to go into foster care, the boys try to help, even as their own problems feel daunting enough.

Is it any good?

Based on the award-winning book by Kimberly Willis Holt, WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN comes across as a realistic representation of tweens coming of age. This has as much to do with the acting as it does the writing; Jonathan Lipnicki is believable as a tween angry with his parents, getting his first kiss, and trying to make sense of the bigger world out there. The life, pace, and small Texas town setting come through effectively, and the movie is unafraid to tackle topics such as death and parental abandonment.

That being said, there are times when it feels like the movie tries to do too much. So much is already happening with Toby and Cal, Zachary Beaver feels at times to be superfluous. So many lessons are being taught, there isn't time for the first lesson to sink in before the next one is tackled. But in a way, though, that's refreshing, as so many coming-of-age movies barely attempt even one lesson on anything. And while some lessons are more heavy-handed than others, the film's ultimate message of empathy should resonate with families mature enough to handle the film's more serious moments.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about coming-of-age movies. What are the similarities and differences between this and other movies where tweens begin to grow up?

  • How does the arrival of Zachary Beaver in this small Texas town cause things to happen to the main characters? What are some examples of other movies where "the mysterious stranger" arrives and disrupts the ordinary routines of characters?

  • How did this movie express the grief and sorrow families feel when their loved ones die in war? Did this seem realistic to you? Why or why not?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age tales

Themes & Topics

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