Pete Ohs is an Ohio-born filmmaker who has met some level of success in the Hollywood indie scene. He’s mounted movies that got limited releases, including one starring multiple Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Assistant). According to Ohs’ own admission, writing a script, finding the money, getting talent attached, and pitching to gatekeepers had somewhat drained the fun out of the creative process of being a filmmaker. He wanted to go back to the days of being kids, just rolling with an idea and chasing it wherever it may lead. So Ohs decided to turn a vacation into a possible movie. His childhood friend, producer Jesse Reed, begged him to come to Youngstown, Ohio and make a movie, so that’s what Ohs did. He would fly out with his two lead actors with no script, no crew, no permits, and film over the course of two weeks during the summer of 2019. For Ohs, it was an attempt to go back to something fun, the appeal of filmmaking before it got so complicated and pressure-packed, and even if things didn’t work out, they still got a two-week vacation. Youngstown is their finished result, a 75-minute trifle of a movie, light and meandering, and admittedly stretched thin.
The story revolves around “Sarah Jayne Reynolds” (Stephanie Hunt) who is in the witness protection program. She’s been relocated in Ohio but just can’t help herself and heads back to her hometown of Youngstown. Along the way, she meets a fast-talking grifter (Andy Faulkner) -literally credited as “Grifter”- who is happy to drive her to Youngstown and see the sights. She shows him her favorite restaurants and haunts, and he tries to teach her how to be a better liar for her own safety, while trying to keep his own low-level schemes going as well.
All criticisms for Youngstown need to be blunted somewhat because this movie had obvious disadvantages, a limited ambition, and was possibly never intended to even exist. It needs to be graded on a curve not because it’s low-budget (I’ve seen movies made for less), or because it’s an indie (Ohs has enough experience as a filmmaker to not deem him a novice), or even that it began life without a finished script (it sure feels like many movies, even big-budget studio tentpoles, sadly follow this route). It’s because the movie is essentially a glorified vacation video and improv experiment. The people behind it just wanted to have fun and highlight the local hot spots and town history for a dilapidated former steel city. The movie is their souvenir. Did Ohs and company, and by that I mean his two actors, pull it all off? Well, yes and no.
It’s impressive that with as many reasons going against it, Ohms is able to pull off a narrative that mostly works. The premise of a woman in witness protection returning to her hometown seems like the dumbest idea a person could do being in reported relocation. The very premise invites you not to take things too seriously, because the character of Sarah never feels like she’s in any real danger. In fact, the impression she gives is either one of blithe ignorance or perhaps limited mental acuity. Then again the government seems to have set her up with a new identity in a neighboring Ohio city. I don’t think moving a vulnerable person just across the county line is the same thing as keeping them safe. Regardless, the movie doesn’t hold Sarah to account for these rash and foolhardy actions, and she’s never placed in any real danger, so it’s the movie’s way of telling you to relax and just go with it. The core is about two odd people who are trying to learn from one another. He’s learning about her wholesome take on life. She’s learning to be more duplicitous or at least less naive. This dynamic actually works well enough to produce comedic sparks of potential, like when Sarah is learning how to lie better by faking being on crutches and her reason for needing them. It’s kind of adorable to watch a person who is really bad at lying being sweetly oblivious. More could have been wrought from this creative combination, but the fact that they never go into a romantic direction and keep things strictly platonic is admirable although perhaps not the best choice.
Another laudable aspect is that Ohs can even make up a movie on the spot without having to scout his locations. According to his account, they would find a space and come up with the scene in that space, with him studying the angles and already mentally putting together an edit in his head so he would know what angles were needed to tell the moment. The photography is crisp and the visual compositions are often well coordinated, with varied focus depth. For being made on the spot, it helps when you have somebody who knows how to shoot a movie, and considering he was the ENTIRE crew, that’s a lot riding on the talents of one man. Ohs has edited more movies than he’s directed (including 2019’s Olympic Dreams), so the editing is efficient and often smooth, evoking the same unhurried, gentle feeling of the story.
Where this movie could have been improved should be obvious to anyone who watches it, and that’s beefing up the story and scenarios to better effect. As the movie was improvised and created from scene-to-scene and day-to-day, it has a general loping quality to it; however, this feeling can become meandering quite often, and just about every conversation, even the comedic ones, feels creatively exhausted. Hunt (Friday Night Lights, The Get Together) and Faulkner (Spree) are agreeable performers, both are charismatic even in minimal, but they’re not gifted improvisers. Faulkner seems to fall back upon the “more is more” approach of Judd Apatow movies. He’ll riff on a bit for an extensive amount of time, conjuring dozens of details or phony names but not really transforming the moment. The best improvisers find new and unexpected avenues with what they’re given, making the transitions seamless. The overall effect of Youngstown is like slowly letting the air out of your patience. A scene will be established, and then it will just keep going, beating whatever joke was present into tiny particles of comedy dust.
Take Sarah showing off her town’s main street and offering commentary about all the restaurants and different locales. Like many of the comedy bits, it starts amusing but then deteriorates. It becomes three minutes of Sarah saying something about every shop and eatery she sees, and few of these observations are even funny. It’s stuff like, “Best Chinese food in the city.” It starts to feel like you’re stuck with a passenger just narrating anything they see without much helpful commentary at all, and that’s precisely what is happening. Some scenes work, like Faulkner explaining how to be better at lying, but too many scenes follow the car narration formula: they keep going longer than the joke affords. It starts to remind me of those improv-heavy additional versions of comedies, like the Anchorman bonus DVD, and even those grow tiresome and they are professionals. The extension of these comedy bits is likely a result of trying to find enough useful material to reach 75 minutes for a feature running time. Otherwise, why include three minutes of a conversation best kept at 30 seconds? It’s a film necessity dragging subpar improv.
As an experiment, Youngstown deserves recognition for even mostly working and for its enjoyable actors and amiable spirit. As a movie, it even looks and sounds professional despite its limitations. Ohs is a real filmmaker who can be trusted to make his movies look like professional movies. As a story or as a comedy, Youngstown is too lacking. The improv seams show all too often and whatever comedy momentum gets diluted and lost. Your tolerance for middling improv will be a big indicator whether or not you find the movie to be charming. Congrats to Ohs and his two actors on being able to make a movie without any significant preparation. It’s a testament to all of their skills. Now only imagine what these folks could do with an actually honed script. As a fun distraction, it can pass the time agreeably but it’s little more than meandering filler. It makes me intrigued to follow Ohs and Hunt and Faulkner in other, more polished projects.
Nate’s Grade: C+