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Minus One (2010)

As I’ve been looking into more Ohio independent films to highlight and review, I had several in local filmmaking circles recommend me the 2010 drama Minus One (currently available on Amazon Prime). It’s a war drama filmed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an example of what can be done when indie filmmaking accentuates the most important parts of storytelling, ones that do not require Hollywood budgets. It’s a heartfelt drama and one that is easy to plug right into.

A trio of National Reserve soldiers have been given the call that they are to report for duty. In three days, they will be transported overseas and onto a base in Iraq. David (Jon Osbeck) is a career veteran and in charge of rounding up the other guys in town. James (Roger Bailey) is a 30-something veteran still trying to build a family. Robert (Remy Brommer) is a young student whose days were about playing video games with his pals and sneaking time in with his girlfriend. The three men try and put their lives in order before they leave and face the possibility of not returning.

Minus One is the kind of meaty drama that can be done on a shoestring budget, which makes it a smart play for indie filmmakers because the drama and characters are what sustain it. There’s something immediate and engaging about a group of men spending their last few days before shipping out. It’s a situation that feels like grieving, the uncertainty and anxiety hanging on everyone’s faces. Will this person ever return home to me? Will things ever be the same? It’s a premise that forces confrontations and that naturally leads to drama and catharsis. The trio of characters all have personal relationships that will need to be touched upon before their departures, although James really gets the short end dramatically. He’s scared about going back for another tour but his wife is supportive and loving and they’ll see it through. James seems to serve more as a contrasting data point in between the character chart, the middle ground between the novice (Robert) and the strong-but-silent veteran (David). The situation demands introspection, reflection, and the conflict of action versus inaction. Will you make amends while able? Will you continue to drift away from those who were at one time so crucial? Will you take ownership over your own faults and the pain you may have caused others? By starting at this point, each scene becomes a learning opportunity for the viewer, trying to deduce connections between established characters and new supporting faces, as well as getting a fuller sense of their daily lives through habits and breaks from routine. Not every scene does this, and there are some scenes that just restate the same learned info, but as a whole Minus One is a well-constructed drama that puts the emphasis on character and conflict and patience. It takes its time to fill in the blanks.

Each character is taking stock of their life and what this moment means, but they’re also taking stock of how it affects the people around them in their lives. Robert being called into service effectively ends his relationship with his girlfriend, and the both of them know it during a party. His mind is preoccupied and she gets up to leave, remarking she has an exam in the morning. You can tell Robert is a little hurt by this reality, wanting to soak up the time they have remaining before he’s gone, and then accepts that reality, that he’s already gone. She says goodbye, hugs him, and they hold onto one another, and what’s unsaid seems to be understood by both parties. This is more than a nightly goodbye. They both know it’s the end and must move on. David is also trying to make right with his ex-wife and little daughter, trying to fix one small thing, one achievable act of kindness, one point that can be fondly remembered, by fixing the broken front porch swing. As his ex-wife relays, David has been a family man in name more than deed, failing to fulfill promises and being present for his loved ones. The duties of the job took their toll. This is a small town and losing three of its own to the war effort will have repercussions. Especially during trying times, it’s clear that our lives and actions can extend far beyond us.

Osbeck (Dark Waters, The Public) has the most challenging role given that he is the most hardened to the call of duty. He delivers a finely textured and weathered performance with enough glints to hint at reserved pools of emotion, from regret with his ex-wife and a lingering ember of hope, to resigned acceptance and gratitude to the many familiar faces in town. Watch the guy talk to his daughter and try not to get a sense of how good Osbeck is at bringing this character to life. His isn’t a showy performance and often underplays the scenes, which feels more appropriate for the role. Bailey and Brommer (Speak) do fine jobs especially when they’re pitted against each other. Both men are fearful but dealing with it in different manners, which puts them at odds. Robert is ignoring the certainty and changes, trying to parrot the Army’s slogans and racist terminology for the enemy overseas as a means of covering up for his gnawing fear. He’s gung-ho for war, and this greatly irritates James, who knows better than to blithely celebrate war as if it was glamorous. I wish their blowup could have gone on longer and cracked both characters open even further.

Other acting standouts include Jennifer Schaaf (Heather’s Painting) as David’s ex-wife who is trying to navigate her complicated feelings of sympathy and personal boundaries, Jane Mowder (The Street Where We Live) as Robert’s mom, especially during the scene where she has to process the news her son is shipping out, Misti Patrella (Classholes) as the grieving widow who has turned to the bottle and has a shared history with David, and the irreplaceable Ralph Scott (Bong of the Living Dead) as the small-town police chief who provides a much-needed wry sense of levity. He has such a natural way of inhabiting a character. Scott is so prevalent in Ohio-produced indie filmmaking that I assume if he’s not in the film he must have been holding the camera somewhere.

There is one significant misstep for the movie and it literally comes in the closing minute. I’ll dance around spoilers to keep things kosher. The film ends as you would expect with our trio being driven out of town and heading to the airport for their international travel (this should not be a spoiler). We’re then treated to post-script text informing us what happened to the three soldiers once they reached Iraq. Firstly, it’s not necessary to give resolution when so much of the story exists in the uncertainty of what will happen next. It feels like ending 12 Angry Men with a post-script that said, “Oh, the kid was really guilty the whole time.” It goes against the thematic emphasis of the preceding story. We don’t need a resolution because these men are representative of the United States soldier as a whole, so it’s better left open-ended. The other drawback is that this post-script covers some pretty major dramatic changes, and to do so in a handful of words in the close is inherently anticlimactic and unsatisfying and a bit clunky. If this was going to be the conclusion to certain characters, then learning about it this manner was not the right choice.  Better to have kept things ambiguous and open-ended than serve up developments this way.

This impulse also surfaces during one of the movie’s most dramatic points, a nearly six-minute monologue by David about his time overseas and a checkpoint that went badly. We begin the moment on Osbeck’s face recounting the painful memory, and then the movie haphazardly cuts back into flashback of the event as narrated. This decision seems like a reasonable one, visualizing the traumatic experience, but it takes away from the moment. It interrupts the focus on Osbeck’s performance where the viewer is studying him for the slightest changes. It’s a strong monologue and the emphasis should be on Osbeck’s face alone. Another reason why this choice doesn’t work is the reality of doubling the Middle East in Columbus, Ohio. This requires a stylistic choice that amounts to “ghost trails” in editing software (think “drunk vision”). It’s being used to signify the past but it’s also being used to cover up the environmental differences. Even with this effect, the forest of the checkpoint still stands out as incongruous. I do think a flashback could have strengthened this moment but it needed to be very judicious. The point of the monologue isn’t how he and his friend got into trouble, it’s about his friend’s sacrifice he blames himself over, which means the emphasis needs to be on his friend. David describes seeing his expression in that final moment, an understanding of his inevitable demise, and that is exactly what should have been the flashback focus. All you needed was a closeup of the man’s face, fixed, emoting every damn thing he can before a flash wipes away the memory. That way the emphasis is on the performance and gets rid of production replication shortfalls.

Minus One is a fairly simple story told in a straight-forward manner. The emphasis is on the relatable characters, the simmering conflicts and the personal revelations of each coming to terms with how their lives will be changing, and the uncertainty that they must come to terms with. This is a story that has been told before, both in film and simply a lived experience of millions, and it will continue to be told afterwards because, at its core, it’s a universal story. It’s saying goodbye to a loved one and coming to terms with responsibility and sacrifice. Yet, Osbeck, serving as writer and co-director with Marc Wiskemann (Holding Patterns), doesn’t rest on making these men symbols (admittedly some of the three have more depth than others). It does no disservice to say Minus One feels like a competent made-for-TV movie; from a technical standpoint, the visual compositions and shots are very standard, placing the focus on the actors and giving them space, and material, to deliver, and they generally do. It’s a small movie about big things and I enjoyed the little touches that better rounded out the world, like David revealing, with a delightful smirk, the secret to how he always gets the daily trivia question correct at his local coffee shop. It’s those small touches that give Minus One a personality. I disagree with the very ending and how it impacts the overall resonance of the movie but it doesn’t sabotage the whole experience. Minus One is a somber, reflective, and touching little homespun drama with plenty of sincerity and heart to spare.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Street Where We Live (2019)

I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.

We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.

The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.

Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.

The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.

Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.

If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.

The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.

Nate’s Grade: B

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