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Shithouse (2020)

This should have been a winner for me. I’m a fan of mumblecore dramas that drop you into people’s ordinary lives. They’re character-driven and built upon naturalistic dialogue that can still be compelling and revealing of its participants. However, Shithouse seems to have found that middle zone between stylized dialogue and naturalistic dialogue; throughout the 100 minutes, the movie involves ordinary people sounding like they’re having real conversations, which means they are generally boring. If you were eavesdropping on these people in real life you would leave. There’s a fine difference between natural but still plot-driving and engaging dialogue and dithering dialogue that holds to the awkward starts and stops of real life but fails to keep your attention. Just because the scene feels realistic does not mean it is the same as being interesting. Writer/director Cooper Raff stars as Alex, a college freshman with a serious case of homesickness. He spends one long night with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and it feels like maybe these two will connect and become romantic. The problem with Shithouse is that it feels like each half-hour is its own different movie. The first is introducing an emotionally fragile young man having difficulty adjusting to collegiate life away from his family. The problem is that I didn’t care about Alex and I didn’t find him being mopey intriguing. It took too long to open him up. The next part is the film’s best and it’s Alex and Maggie spending hours together walking, chatting, having little adventures on the path to burying her dead turtle. It’s the best part of the film and where I felt the movie was starting to coalesce, even with a protracted setup. This is the Before Sunrise part. However, the next morning, Alex and Maggie seem to have very different views of their long night and eventual hookup. He’s overloading her with messages and she’s being distant and indifferent, and this is where the movie becomes like 500 Days of Summer, holding up for scrutiny the romantic aspirations of those grown up with the media of pop-culture happy endings. Had Raff left us in this direction, I could even argue that his structure served a larger point of condemning his protagonist’s viewpoint. I might not enjoy it but I could mildly respect it. However, Shithouse then undoes this part with a resolution set two-plus years in the future that doesn’t feel earned and is tonally disjointed from this prior section. If this was the intent, then why did Raff even prolong us with this extended morass of missed Instagram messages and angry outbursts over misreading what the night meant to both parties? Regardless, there are glimmers and moments in this gentle little movie that worked, that hit upon a deeper truth, but mostly you’re stuck with dull people having boring conversations.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Sword of Trust (2019)

Writer/director Lynn Shelton is a filmmaker that has a habit of flying under the radar with her wonderful entries in the fly-on-the-wall hipster mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas. The hilariously awkward Humpday punctuated insecure masculinity and was on my Top Ten list for 2009, and 2012’s Your Sister’s Sister was another laser-like focus on characters trying to deal with a lifetime of relationship secrets coming out. Both of those movies have been remade as French films too, with Humpday becoming 2012’s Do Not Disturb and Your Sister’s Sister becoming 2015’s Half Sister, Full Love (which sounds more like a porn title to my ears). Sword of Trust is one part mumblecore drama, one part screwball comedy, and a bit of a lovely, shambly mess.

Mel (Marc Maron) owns and operates a pawn shop in a small Alabama town. He’s used to losers and lowlifes and junkies coming through and giving their sad stories. Enter Cynthia (Jullian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a gay couple looking to make the most of a strange inheritance. Cynthia’s grandfather gave her a Union sword and a story that says this sword is proof that the South did not lose the Civil War after all… somehow. The trio, along with Mel’s dimwitted shop employee Nathaniel (John Bass), hatch a scheme to try and con an underground Confederate memorabilia group for all its worth.

The real draw of Sword of Trust is the low-key comic sensibilities of the cast. As I wrote previously in my review for Your Sister’s Sister: “There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours.” Sword of Trust (written by Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien) probably ranks a distant third in the three Shelton-directed movies I’ve seen, but her skills and care are still evident in characterization and empathy.

Maron has matured into an impressive dramatic actor thanks to Netflix’s wonderful wrestling series GLOW. He has a natural sad sack aura to him, as well as a brittle fuse that’s in danger of being set off at any moment. The character of Mel seems tailor-made for him, and I wouldn’t put it past Shelton that it was (she directed several episodes of GLOW as well as Maron’s 2017 comedy special). He’s the biggest mystery of the movie and we get hints early on in a disarmingly dramatic moment when his ex-girlfriend Deidre (Shelton herself) tries getting collateral so she can secure a job. She professes that he knows “she’s good for it,” and that this time will be different, and the way the two of them seem to circle a larger conversation, one filled with hurt and heartache, is a masterful example in writing subtlety and subtext. We’ll have their personal connections revealed later in the movie, but this scene serves as a tantalizing clue that there’s more to this movie than a group of oddballs in a pawn shop. It’s the first stab at drama and it’s quite effective, and Shelton can be one hell of an actress too. She leaves an impression as a character you want to get back to, and sadly the movie keeps her at a distance as we learn more.

The rest of the movie doesn’t quite tap into this vein (more on that below) but the agreeable camaraderie of the characters is a major selling point. Mumblecore movies are typically character-driven and small observational movies that lean on broken people navigating their way through the world, pushing forward onto greater emotional growth by the closing credits. If you’re not a fan of these kinds of movies, then Sword of Trust might still prove appealing based upon the broader comedy elements and the wackiness that can come at a moment’s notice, like when a man at gunpoint instructs each hostage to dance in a different bizarre style. Otherwise, Sword of Trust is a movie that ambles along on its own gentle wavelengths, buoyed by the performances and interactions of its core cast. There’s an uneasy alliance between the foursome. Primarily this is with Maron and Bell’s characters, the two most significant players. Bell (22 Jump Street) is enjoyably sunny and awkward as a woman trying to make the best of a bad inheritance. It’s the most dramatic and restrained I’ve ever seen Bell, best known for loud-mouthed, course comic supporting roles. Watkins (Casual) is more a force to push her girlfriend into further action, and Bass (Baywatch) is kept as the goofball meant for easy ridicule as a symbol of preferential ignorance. He’s never more than a quick punchline, especially as he tries explaining his scientifically strained flat Earth beliefs.

They’re an enjoyable group and watching them bicker, jostle for leverage, and ultimately work as a team for common cause it sweetly entertaining. Everyone is trying to make the best of an unexpected situation, with each playing their part to try and capitalize on this strange money-making scheme. A lengthy conversation in the back of a truck bounces from character to character, each revealing further layers they feel comfortable now sharing. It’s the kind of enjoyable character beats that the mumblecore genre is known for, crafting relatable, interesting, flawed characters and watching them play off one another. There’s also plenty of comedy because of how the characters are drawn, like when Mel insists that an attacker stole his own screwdriver to use as a threatening weapon. This small comedic beat grows and grows as it almost consumes Mel so that even when that harried situation clears up he has to know whether or not it really was his own screwdriver. That’s a sly comedy beat connected to character. Shetlon’s film has an improvised feel but honed to a script that provides a necessary degree of discipline.

Despite the amiability of the cast and the comedic potential of the premise, Sword of Trust doesn’t really rise above being a pleasant if minor hang-out picture. I feel like if it was ultimately about the characters then we needed a few more scenes where they can grow, be challenged, or simply share their conflicts and histories. If it’s going to be more a wacky send-up of willfully ignorant conspiracy theorists and anti-intellectuals, then I feel like the final act needed more complications and examination. Shelton’s movie settles into a middle ground trying to have the wacky sitcom shenanigans and the heartfelt, modest mumblecore character beats. It doesn’t feel like either side is fully utilized and explored to its best version. I enjoyed the characters and found the movie getting better as they opened up, especially Maron’s curmudgeonly lead with a guarded past. I also laughed some big laughs at the wacky hijinks of a dysfunctional gang working together to con a group of Confederate  revisionists. There are moments that point toward the more studio-friendly, concept-driven version of this movie, like when the gang creates a cover story of them being romantic couples. In Shelton’s film this is a momentary gag and then it’s left behind, also because it occurs so late into the movie. You can see where the escalation of misunderstandings and trouble could make the film a broader comedy. You can also see the avenues where the characters eschew the broad comedy for more intimate, revealing conversations. The resulting film is enjoyable and solid, but I think it would have been better if it had chosen its preferred tone.

Sword of Trust (my fingers keep wanting to type Sword of Truth) is definitely a lesser but still enjoyable film for Shelton and her ensemble. It’s stuck in a pleasant but diverting hangout zone when it could have been more observational or broader and wackier. I was hoping for more of a send-up of the fringes who cling to rumors and disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, whether it’s that the South legitimately lost the war or that the Earth is indeed round. Sword of Trust benefits from a group of actors who can smartly handle improv scenarios while still keeping things true to character. It’s an enjoyable 90 minutes just hanging out with these people, even if the film feels like it’s losing some of its momentum as it veers into its third act. While not as polished, there’s still enough to enjoy and recommend with Shelton’s latest, and she’s a storyteller that deserves an adoring audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Frances Ha (2013)

1980Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker I generally don’t care for. I quite enjoyed his first feature, the college comedy Kicking and Screaming, and his co-authorship of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a worthy venture. But I normally associate such unrepentant misery with this guy’s movies, chiefly because they’re generally about miserable people being miserable (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg). I was surprised then when his new movie Frances Ha got ringing endorsements from several of my trusted female friends, the kind who would not cotton to Baumbach’s usual pedigree of filmmaking. I took the plunge and was captivated by the shrewd, funny, and surprisingly affectionate portrayal of a twenty-something woman finding herself late (ish) in life.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice for a dance company in New York City waiting her turn at much in life. She’s waiting for her post-college life to fall into place; however, her world gets shaken up when her roommate and best friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out. The distance grows beyond physical proximity and Frances feels like she’s drifting away from her closest friend. In the meantime, she sputters trying to become an adult herself, swapping roommates and living conditions, and getting into trouble with guys, money, and Sophie.

130510_MOV_FrancesHa.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeWhile a bit freeform in its plot momentum, Frances Ha is a perceptive and ultimately poignant film exploring female friendship dynamics and the perils of growing up. Frances is something of an adorable mess but she’s been treading water for some time, bouncing around, but her window for avoiding the adult world is coming to a close and she knows it, which is why she feels the anxiety that she does. There’s something completely relatable about the anxiety of entering into the “adult world,” and yet it’s a transition we must all endure. Frances, now 27, has put it off as long as she could but even her “other half,” Sophie, is making the transition, and with it growing apart from her BFF. Frances may be living in New York City but she hasn’t had a charmed existence, the kind of hipster nouveau rich experience we see detailed in Lena Dunham’s Girls (a show I genuinely enjoy, though the second season was a bit iffy). When Frances is out on a date, an event she engineered because she just got her tax return, she discovers she has to pay in cash. She then runs several blocks looking for an ATM. When she finds one she stands in great deliberation at the screen. She’ll incur a $3 fee for withdrawing. When she returns, she apologizes to her date, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” Despite these economic bearings, she makes impulsive decisions but pays for them. A spontaneous weekend getaway to Paris, which she spends most of it sleeping or moping, results in Frances working back at her alma mater in a menial fashion.

There’s also Baumbach’s signature dark humor that follows Frances like a dark cloud, her life regularly a series of more downs than ups. However, Baumbach’s caustic sensibilities have been sanded down, perhaps thanks to co-writer/girlfriend Gerwig’s involvement, and the movie adopts a tone less scabrous and more knowing. It doesn’t position us to laugh at Frances as a self-involved moron who makes poor decisions; we’re laughing from the standpoint of perspective. I noticed little judgment (when she says “my friends make fun of me because I can’t explain where my bruises come from,” I thought of a few female friends in my life who could relate). Not much goes right for Frances through the duration of the movie, but by the end she appears to have come out the stronger. She’s got the beginnings of her entrance into the adult world and the movie leaves the impression that she’s going to be okay. I appreciated that she didn’t abandon her passion with dance as if becoming a grown-up meant stepping away from what you care about. That concluding uplift provides a reward for the audience and Frances after so many missteps and struggles. There’s a tenderness here that’s refreshing for Baumbach.

I also thought Frances Ha was a very insightful and interesting look at female dynamics, something that rarely gets such a thoughtful and high profile examination. Friendships, especially those between women, can function like romantic relationships when it comes to intimacy, minus the sex. Frances and Sophie comment that their relationship is like an old lesbian couple that has stopped having sex. They are each other’s other half, attuned perfectly to one another’s peculiar sensibilities. When Frances tries to recreate these sensibilities with another woman, she responds in annoyance. At the very beginning, Frances gets into a fight and breaks up with her boyfriend all because he wanted her to move in with him and thus away from Sophie. We feel her grief then when this important person, this long-standing friend that Frances has defined her own sense of identity with, is moving on and moving out. We’ve all had those people in our lives whose personal successes force us to reflect upon our own life trajectories, and we may grimace. It’s an unavoidable part of growing up but our relationships will alter and the people important in our lives will fluctuate, many times through no fault to either party. Frances and Sophie are at that crossroads as Sophie settles down with a career and an emerging and serious relationship, while Frances is sputtering and trying to hold onto the past. The end even borrows a literal nod from 2011 Bridesmaids, one of my favorite films of that year. Frances yearns for a love that is so powerful so transcendent, that all it needs is a look, a silent nod of communication that both parties share, invisible to all others. It doesn’t take a genius to infer that this look will be between Frances and Sophie by film’s end.

Frances-HaGerwig (Arthur, To Rome with Love) has been an up-and-coming It Girl for some time in Hollywood, rising in the ranks of mumblecore cinema and becoming a muse for Baumbach. Frances Ha is tailor-made to her amiable strengths; the woman is easy to fall in love with. Watch her skip and dance through the streets of New York, set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and try not to smile. Gerwig has a natural, easy-going charisma and a screen presence that grabs you. Her cheerful, unmannered dorkiness grounds Frances’ vanity, making her far more relatable and worthy of our rooting. France sis no mere Manic Pixie Dream Girl sketch of a woman; here is a three-dimensional figure for the taking. Gerwig also has fantastic chemistry with Sumner (TV’s The Borgias), daughter of Sting. You instantly get a feel for the history these two have shared with their relaxed interactions. And speaking of HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver, a.k.a. Adam, has a substantial supporting role and another Frances Ha actor, Michael Zegen (TV’s Boardwalk Empire), will appear in season 3. Small world.

Frances Ha owes as much to the French New Wave as it does to the observational mumblecore movies of Gerwig’s early roots. Here is a film that’s perceptive, dryly funny, poignant, and relatively lovely in its quieter moments of everyday life and relationships, rich with feeling. It’s angst and ennui without overpowering self-absorption. Your ultimate judgment is going to rest on your opinion of Gerwig and the Frances character, but I found both to be charming and easy to relate with. We want this woman to land on her feet, find her place in the world so to speak, but the movie refrains from casting condescension. Frances isn’t stupid; she’s a bit naïve and a bit impulsive and oblivious, but this woman is also hopeful, passionate, persistent, and a good person at heart. Losing her closest female friend is akin to the worst breakup of her life. She’s sputtering to redefine herself, to find traction with the adult world she knows she cannot hold off any longer. In that sense, Frances Ha is also a winning look at late-bloomers. It’s Baumbach’s best film since Kicking and Screaming and one of the best films of 2013 thus far.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Your Sister’s Sister (2012)

1793Lynn Shelton is quickly becoming one of my favorite indie film artists. Her writing and directorial offerings are somewhat relegated to the fly-on-the-wall hipster “mumblecore” category, but what separates Shelton is her narrative momentum, her laser-like focus with character, and her sense that a movie needs to build to something significant. With 2009’s Humpday, it was two dudes who might have sex as a test of their masculinity (you really need to see the movie for the full context). With Your Sister’s Sister, it’s the full ramifications of a bunch of delicious relationship secrets getting out there. Everyone in the film has something to hide and something to lose, and watching it all play out with humor and sweetness and honesty that is rare in movies.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is still coming to terms with the death of his older brother. His best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), who was his brother’s girlfriend at the time of his passing, offers a suggestion. She arranges some alone time for the guy to clear his head. He bikes out to her family cabin but is surprised to find a guest already there, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ older sister. Hannah and Jack break the ice by bonding over their personal loss: his brother and her ending a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. Over a long night of drinking, the two decide to impulsively have sex. The next morning is even more awkward when Iris shows up at the cabin, planning to finally reveal her own feelings for Jack. What follows may be one of the few character-based sitcom plots I’ve witnessed.

80259_galMuch like Shelton’s previous movie, the greatest strength of the film is how beautifully naturalistic it all feels while still telling an engaging story. The film has a relaxed vibe that washes over you, allowing you to immerse yourself in what feels like a real group of friends. There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours. I don’t want to mistakenly give the impression that this movie is a dull yakfest where the participants are in love with the sound of their own exceptional voices. Each scene in this movie advances the plot further, twisting the screws, complicating matters, and brimming with delightful awkwardness and tension. With 2009’s Humpday, I wrote: “What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story.” And the same can be said for Your Sister’s Sister as well.

While the premise is a bit of a sitcom novelty with some farcical developments thrown in, the depth of the characters and the fantastic acting help to make sure that Your Sister’s Sister is nothing but graceful and beguiling. And the escalating conflicts, personal revelations and complicated feelings, always find a way to come across as organic to the story. That’s another amazing part of the film, that even with all the sexual hijinks that it still manages to feel grounded and surprisingly relatable. These are interesting, complicated, flawed, and spectacular characters, and watching them interact, profess their love through small actions and big declarations, seeing their heartfelt camaraderie, and watch them navigate their troubled lives to find some semblance of a happy ending is a joy to watch. This is a potent little movie, fully realized, poignant, funny, and genuine.

The film was shot over the course of 12 days and Shelton has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, working off her outline. Improvisation is a dangerous tact when dealing with a dialogue-driven film, such as this one. Just because it’s coming off the top of your head doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good. Not everyone is gifted with the ability to improv dialogue that is true to character, revealing, advances the story, as well as just being entertaining. Luckily, Your Sister’s Sister is the exception.

If Your Sister’s Sister does have a weakness, it’s the third act that seems to stall out without giving us much in development before tidying the broken relationships up again. The film’s comedic structure could feel, in lesser hands, like a generic sitcom. It is to Shelton and her actors’ credit that the twists and turns still manage to feel as believable as possible. The third act hits when all the secrets come out, pushing the characters away. Rather than (minor spoilers) ramping things up, we merely endure an extended wordless sequence of images of Jack biking around and the sisters burying the hatchet. Then it’s time for our big happy romantic declaration that tidies everything up, and we’re done. While satisfying on an emotional level given our empathy for the trio, the third act does seem very thin for an otherwise lean and well-structured story. It feels like perhaps Shelton only had enough plot for two acts.

RT_YourSistersSisterThe main trio is a rather engaging ensemble that convincingly plays a besotted group of friends and family. Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) has gotten considerably more attention since starring in Shelton’s last movie; the man and his schlubby, smirky charm are ubiquitous. He has a way of being edgy without pushy and nonplussed and flummoxed without going overboard. Duplass has a natural fit for comedy but the man can really excel with the meatier drama bits as well, displaying the painful yearning of a man caught between his desire and the need to move on. He’s a winning and likeable presence that can still be endearing even when he’s flailing around or making others uncomfortable.

DeWitt (The Watch) was a late addition to the cast, replacing Rachel Weisv (The Bourne Legacy) when scheduling conflicts got the best of her. She deserves extra kudos for how good she is considering the miniscule prep time she had compared with her costars. DeWitt is amusing in how cagey and sardonic she can be, and her chemistry with Blunt (Looper) is outstanding. I greatly enjoyed the subtle nuances between them, the way their body language and gestures added extra layers to their relationship, the familiar communication and sisterly code, and just the smallest details that felt well thought out. The relationships in Your Sister’s Sister feel sweetly genuine, and with the benefit of great actors, it lays the groundwork for characters we care about.

Three people sharing time in a cabin might not seem like an exciting setup for a movie, unless, of course, there’s some supernatural presence murdering them in grisly fashion. However, when you lock away three great actors who know their characters inside out, a smart script that allows them the space to develop but pushes the movie forward scene-by-scene, and direction that feels seamless with the storytelling, then you have something special, and that something special is Your Sister’s Sister. While I think Shelton’s previous film had more at play concerning male relationships and sexual politics, this one, with a more straightforward, farcical plotline, is still plenty entertaining and with strong character work (the ending does leave one very large question unanswered). This is charming, sweet, unassuming little indie film that will provide a solid dose of smiles and laughs.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A man puts a classified ad in the newspaper asking for an unusual companion. No, it’s not some weird sex thing. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) intends to travel back in time to correct a few regrets. He’s looking for a partner, though he specifies his traveling companion must bring his or her own weapons and that safety is not guaranteed. This quirky ad grabs the attention of Jeff (New Girl‘s Jake Johnson), an egotistical writer for a Seattle magazine. He takes along a pair of interns, the surly Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni). Together, the gang heads out of town to seek out Kenneth and determine whether or not he is for real. However, Jeff’s real intention for this “work vacation” was to travel back to his hometown and try and score with Liz (Jenica Bergere), an old high school flame he is horrified to discover has… aged. Darius is the only one who can get close to Kenneth, but what starts as an opportune assignment into investigating a weirdo becomes something more. The guy, sweet if a little off, may be on to something… big, and Darius may be falling for him despite her own misgivings.

Safety Not Guaranteed is a modest film but does it ever sneak up on you and deliver an emotional wallop. I’m a romantic at heart, and so I’m generally affected by seeing two lonely people find their special something in the world reserved for them, and it’s even more affecting when these people are oddballs, and thus it’s even more resonant and meaningful for them to find that connection so elusive before. At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a quirky yet naturally developing love story, and those are my favorite kind. I found my heart melting every time Darius couldn’t help herself and smiled. Perhaps it’s because Darius is our outside heroine or that Plaza is best known for her stone-faced deadpans on TV’s Parks and Recreation, but every one of those smiles felt so richly earned and rewarding. These aren’t the typical rom-com characters that are going to lapse into great speeches about love at key clichéd moments; while dabbling in some fantastical elements, Safety Not Guaranteed exists in our own recognizable world. And with that established, the unguarded moments of genuine happiness for characters we care about translates into a surprisingly touching experience. My heart felt so full at different points, melting and swelling and doing other non-medically accurate things. I honestly had tears in my eyes at different points. By the perfect end, I was so hopeful and overjoyed and left the theater soaring on my good vibes. I can’t guarantee everyone will find the same level of engagement in the romantic relationship, but I believe that the movie is inspired, clever, and authentic enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing finish. It’s earnest without being hokey.

I’m trying to tiptoe around spoilers, though for those critical readers out there I’m sure you can infer a thing or two about the end of the film given my positive, beaming response. I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different if, say, Darius and Kenneth died in a horrible fireball because he was criminally insane from the start. All I’ll say is pay attention to certain discrepancies and see if they might prove to be a conversation-starter when you leave the theater.

Have I mentioned how truly funny this movie is? I’ve been talking all about the “rom” portion of the equation, but Safety not Guaranteed is a consistently funny movie, with a few big laughs. The movie’s sharp sense of comedy is more than everyone simply derisively laughing at the nutball. To be sure, Kenneth provides plenty of comedy in his super serious demeanor, and the movie doesn’t overplay the idea that he may be mentally unbalanced. The jokes come from the character interaction more than any contrived set piece, and the pleasure is in watching conflicting personalities bounce off one another. Every character contributes nicely to the comedic rhythms of this picture, adding a line here, a reaction there, to assemble one very funny movie. In movies where one character enters a relationship under initial false pretenses, usually you just keep waiting for that particular shoe to drop. You wait for the truth to come out and then deception reconciliation dominates the third act. Thankfully, the movie speeds over this narrative trap and gets us to the good stuff. We don’t need an entire act for people to be contrite and prove their love when what we see onscreen is obvious enough.

What elevated Safety Not Guaranteed for me was that beyond the oddball romance, there’s careful and compassionate attention paid to a slew of supporting characters. Now with a scant 80-minute running time, and the attention-grabber of a guy who thinks he can travel through time, naturally the supporting characters have minimized roles, but what I enjoyed was that they were not just relegated as stock players. The film has two stock roles, Nerd and Jerk, and fleshes them out further (though, to be assured, those are still defining characteristics). Arnau is a guy who is convinced any interaction with girls will ultimately lead to personal embarrassment. He’s only focused on the future and what he needs to get there, barely living in the present. It’s nice to watch him grow some confidence, albeit a small amount, and find some degree of enjoyment. And then there’s self-described asshole Jeff, who only submitted the story so he could come back and bang his old high school girlfriend. Some will find Jeff’s minimal personal growth to be disappointing and stagnate, but I thought anything substantial for this character over a three-day period of time would be unrealistic. Jeff is chasing his past memories, a faded time that had so much possibility when he was a stud in high school. The movie explores this notion of returning to a period of innocence as well. Going back to a time before overwrought cynicism, before settling, before compromising, before life became work, it’s something of a wish that the characters seem to be chasing. Jeff realizes how truly empty his life is, yet he’s probably too set in his ways to alter his path, which is a shame because Liz certainly seems like a lovely, caring, and capable romantic opportunity. Hey, she bakes, too (Bergere is great and easy to fall for). The unlikely friendship that emerges between Jeff and Arnau is also quite enjoyable and disarmingly sweet.

I also need to single out the score from first time composer Ryan Miller, the lead singer and guitarist for one of my favorite alternative rock bands, Guster. The music has a lilting, dreamy quality to it but then follows a steady melodic rock path, reminiscent of the melancholic score for Little Miss Sunshine. The strumming guitars, plinging pianos, and swelling violins come together in harmony with little sci-fi touches. The score gives the film another sense of enchantment. I’ve been listening to “Big Machine,” the song Kenneth plays for Darius, on a loop for over an hour, if that gives you any indication on how much I enjoyed the original tune. The fact that “Big Machine” plays over the end credits when the movie meets its perfect end has got to account for some of my positive association. I think Miller has a bright future in crafting film scores.

Plaza (Funny People) deserves to break out in a big way after this film. She’s the heart of the movie and deeply vulnerable, covering it up with nonchalant cynicism. Darius is well within her surly comfort range so it’s no surprise that she excels with the hipster character, but the moments of dramatic weight are not given flippant treatment. Duplass (TV’s The League), just about everywhere in 2012, delivers a committed performance, though it seems mostly committed to the goofiness of his character. Yet when Duplass is able to show you some of the edge to his character, that’s when the performance walks a line between dangerous and exciting. The movie hinges on the two actors working together and they have good chemistry; the goofball and the cynic.

It’s so nice to discover a movie that lifts your spirits, that touches your heart without reaching for the treacle, and delivers a funny experience without compromising its modest aims and modest tone. Safety Not Guaranteed obviously plays a deliberate dance with the audience, vacillating between moments that make Kenneth seem crazy and moments that make you question whether he’s legit. The movie reminded me in a lot of ways of the underrated 2000 flick Happy Accidents, which featured Vincent D’Onofrio as a romantic suitor who also might be a time traveler or just plain nuts. Safety Not Guaranteed is a charming movie that seems to work a spell on you while watching; you get so invested in watching lonely people find meaningful human connections that you are compelling the movie to end under some happy scenario. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly deserve to make waves in Hollywood with what they’re able to accomplish with a tidy budget and some clever yet earnest writing. This beguiling love story is all about stretching out of your comfort zone and taking a plunge into the unknown. Just like Kenneth, we’re all looking for a partner worthy of that plunge (not necessarily a romantic partner, mind you). Take the plunge and go see Safety Not Guaranteed, one of the best movies of the year. Not bad for a movie potentially based upon an Internet meme, huh?

Nate’s Grade: A

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)

This lumpy, amiable shaggy dog story from the Duplass brothers is another earnest, warm-hearted comedy that marries their signature family dysfunction, mumblecore quirk to a larger, more mainstream setting. The Jeff (Jason Segel) in question is a 30-year-old slacker, who indeed lives at home, and awaits signs from the universe to guide his decision-making. Incidentally, his favorite movie we learn in a monologue set on a commode, is Signs. His older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is a selfish twit and embarks on a quest, with Jeff, to discover if his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him. The boys mother (Susan Sarandon) also has a nice storyline where an anonymous admirer is sending her flirty instant messages at work. Watching her face light up as she processes being wanted, it’s a thing of beauty. The characters are all flawed, and for some they may be too annoying to sit through. The film has been accused of being aimless, but I was engaged with its plot, which kept ping-ponging from one cause to another effect scenario. The movie is really more a drama with some comedic asides, mainly due to Jeff’s stoner zen and Pat’s aggressive dickishness. Greer has an outstanding moment where she lets her character’s deep reservoir of unhappiness come out in a blinding moment of honesty, and it rang true to my ears. In fact, the entire movie feels true enough. And then it appears destiny reveals its master plan with an ending that makes your heart warm all over, championing Jeff’s mantra of optimism and interconnectedness. The simple, good-natured, sweet little movie is worth checking out.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Future (2011)

Miranda July is a writer/performance artist/filmmaker whose unique voice earns as many praises of “precocious” as it does hails of “pretentious.” Her previous effort, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, had such oddities as a group of cars creating a caravan to save a goldfish left atop one’s roof and children engaging in online sex chat over sharing feces from behind to another ( ))<>(( is the visual articulation of this function). Yeah.

With her second feature film, The Future, we follow Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), a couple who decide to adopt an injured cat they find. Named Paw-Paw by Sophie, they must wait 30 days for the medical checks to clear before they can pick up the cat. They believe that they are doing a kindness and giving the cat a good place to live in its last month of life. Then the vet informs them that if bonded, the cat could live an additional five years. Sophie and Jason will be 40 in another five years, and this realization stops them cold in their tracks. Both are unhappy with their lives, he works as a technical help guru and she teaches dance to preschool-aged children. They decide that for the next 30 days they will reinvent themselves. They will take the road less traveled and see where it takes them. Jason volunteers to be an environmental solicitor on a whim. Sophie wants to do 30 dances in 30 days but is crippled by fear. She reaches out to Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older single dad who proves to be a source of unlikely temptation. Along the way to the conclusion of those 30 days, Jason will utilize his abilities to stop time, speak with the moon, an old T-shirt will crawl will come alive, and the story will be narrated at turns by Paw-Paw.

It should be obvious at this point that July is not going to be everyone’s taste. You could just as well furrow your brow at all these pseudo-intellectual bohemian artsy smartsy pretensions and make snide remarks under your breath. And I can’t say I’d blame you at points. However, if you happen to catch a ride on July’s funky wavelengths, then The Future becomes a poignant, observant, and occasionally profound rumination on human connection. July’s two main characters encounter a full crisis of self, fearing that their lives will essentially be over upon turning 35, which they reason is almost 40, which is practically 50, and all that back-half stuff is “loose change” (not enough to really get what you want). I believe I heard none other than Jessica Simpson herself utter a similar statement on her ill-fated Newlyweds reality TV show. She said, “I’m turning 23, which is practically 25, which is almost 30.” Perhaps Ms. July was also watching that episode, and if so this will be the only time in print that I congratulate Jessica Simpson for anything. This manufactured anxiety over doing something of worth and lasting value with your time on this planet is nothing new but it is deeply relatable, despite the silly numbers game the characters endure. It’s a paralyzing existential doubt. Who doesn’t want to feel like their life had purpose? You only get one. July makes a series of observant comments about human interaction. For their life project, Sophie decides to cancel the couple’s Internet connection. They have but moments, perhaps seconds left, before the Internet is lost to them for 30 days, and they scramble to open their laptops to do important stuff. “Only look up stuff we can’t find in books or by talking to people,” Jason intones. Slowly, both of them come to the same realization and close their laptops. It’s a silent admission that the technology we feel dependant upon might not be so.

There’s a striking clarity when an artist cuts through everything and finds something dwelling inside your grey matter. For me, July is that kind of artist. I loved a sequence where Sophie, out of slumming desperation, takes a job as a receptionist back at her old work place. One day two of her female friends come into the studio. Both women are several months pregnant, and Sophie is aghast that she let time get the better of her. She keeps shaking her head, rationalizing that it must have only been a couple weeks since last she saw her friends. Then through a series of edits, we witness a fantastic fantasy that highlights Sophie’s abject feelings of accomplishing little while time flies by. Every time the camera cuts back to the friends more time passes; we see them hold newborn babies, then we see those babies as kids, then as young adults, and finally as adults who themselves have married each other and wish to enroll their own daughter into pre-dance. They inform Sophie that their mothers passed some time ago. And all the while, Sophie is still in her dead-end job. It’s a terrific scene that highlights the anxiety we all feel about being lead footed in life, watching others skirt by and negatively assessing our own personal journeys by someone else’s accomplishments. The Future is full of moments like this that hit so hard you feel like the ground beneath you has vanished. Jason’s refusal to restart time is painfully identifiable, the wish to stay frozen in time to defer facing the hard pains of a breakup, the rueful knowledge that life will be forever different, and worse, in the passing of a second. The future can be a painful place we’d all like to hide under the covers and avoid.

Like July’s previous film, The Future is more a series of encapsulated vignettes, each with their own peculiarities, than a fully formed coherent story. While I enjoyed the separate vignettes better in Me and You, the overall story congeals better in The Future even if the results are messy. This is a less romantic and hopeful film than Me and You. It’s much more ambiguous (that’s saying something) and bleak when it exposes the missed chances that can haunt, none more so than Paw-Paw, our bandaged feline narrator. Scurry to the next paragraph if you’d like this part unspoiled for you, sensitive animal-loving readers. Paw-Paw speaks about her new sense of happiness, about having owners that will be kind to her, and this new sense of belonging fills the cat with a ballooning hope that her real life has finally begun. But then Paw-Paw doesn’t make it. She dies a day before either Sophie or Jason comes by to pick her up. But the cruel irony is that Sophie and Jason missed picking up their cat/metaphor of their relationship on its release date. Paw-Paw could have spent her last day on earth with the people she had yearned to be with, the people she wrote an imaginary letter to telling them how grateful she was and how much she promised to love them. Instead, the cat dies, forever waiting. That’s pretty rough, and even though July’s scratchy, high-pitched Paw-Paw voice can be annoying, God help me if the pet lover in me wasn’t in tears every time this damn cat was narrating, including after its death. That’s the kind of film The Future offers. It does not dish out easy answers for life’s Big Questions. Even as the end credits roll, you’re left to ponder whether you believe that Sophie and Jason will reconcile.

July, resembling a cross between Kristen Schaal (Dinner for Schmucks) and Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), is probably also her biggest hindrance. She’s not that developed as an actress, or is being purposely opaque, and thus Sophie seems to be lost in a medicated fog. This was less of a problem with Me and You because the ensemble was larger. Here, it’s mainly three actors. July delivers every line in a flat style that makes her character harder to decipher and harder to empathize with when she goes off into her affair. The entire storyline with the sign making “other man” is kept at a mystery. We’re not really sure why Sophie would be attracted to this man or what problems are ailing her relationship with Jason. I suppose the early mid-life crisis could serve as a fire to get Sophie to reach out to someone who offers more security, but that’s merely my best estimation. It’s a detour that could use more attention to explain its significance. I suppose it could be July’s version of a romantic comedy staple of being with the wrong man and finding out late your mistake. It’ll be up to the viewer which guy fills the role of “wrong man.” Luckily, Linklater (TV’s New Adventures of Old Christine) is a winning presence, affable without being offbeat and striving for meaning without coming across as pompous.

Whether it’s a dance inside an oversized T-shirt or choosing a song to communicate undying love in the event of amnesia, The Future is chockablock with memorable moments, images, insights, and peculiarities. Whether all of that comes together into a fully realized movie is another matter. The scattershot nature and July’s own acting shortcomings clip the film’s momentum, but the uniqueness of voice and observant vision of July as writer/director makes me forgive much of The Future’s faults. It’s not exactly an easy sell of a movie, especially to concerned pet lovers, but July is one of those polarizing artists I’m glad finds the time to empty their brain every now and then. I may not fully understand everything but The Future held enough promise for me to leave feeling satisfied.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Humpday (2009)

There’s a definite squeamishness out there when it comes to the idea of men expressing intimacy. Brokeback Mountain proved even liberal Hollywood wasn’t ready to anoint a movie about two gay dudes secretly getting it on. There will be large portions of people that will refuse to give a movie like Humpday a chance simply because of its premise: two guys plotting to have sex. It’s not a dirty movie by any means, nor does it get graphic with details or conversations. But the movie exactingly explores the uncomfortable relationships men have with expressions of romance. Humpday is also extremely funny in that pained, awkward sensibility, and I challenge the squeamish to give this charming indie a shot at love. If it makes it any easier for people to take (SPOILER ALERT) they don’t actually go through with it.

Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a comfortable existence with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). Then one day his old friend from college, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), unexpectedly visits. Andrew has lived a Kerouac-like existence on the road as an aspiring artist. The two guys catch up on old times and Andrew invites Ben over to a party. He ditches his wife, and her pork chops, for the party, which turns out to be hosted by a group of free-love artists. The alcohol-fueled conversation lands on Humpfest, the annual amateur pornography festival held in Seattle. Ben and Andrew come up with their own entry idea: two straight guys that will have sex. “That’s beyond gay,” somebody says. Both men refuse to back down. Ben books a hotel room. The only thing he has to do now is tell his wife about Andrew’s “art project.”

Humpday explodes male sexual insecurities better than any film since 1997?s Chasing Amy. Each man refuses to back out of having gay sex because they don’t want to be seen as less masculine. It’s masculinity brinksmanship, willing to go all the way to prove superior heterosexuality through a homosexual act, and it?s nothing short of brilliant. Neither Ben nor Andrew wants to “puss out” on their big moment. But neither of them really wants to go through with it either, which leads toward tremendous amounts of awkward comedy. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has fashioned a scenario that is hilarious but also subtlety heartfelt; many films deal with the bromance of heterosexual love, but Shelton pushes it to the limit. These two guys do care about each other, and you can see their camaraderie as they recount old stories and open up to one another, and in the end they might be willing to go to the extremes for their friendship, whatever the consequences may be.

Both Ben and Andrew have deep-seated insecurities about their personal lives; Andrew wants to live a free-spirited artistic lifestyle but is really too scared to fully commit, and too “square” for abandoning all sexual inhibitions like some of his casual artsy pals; Ben has a house, a job, a wife, and feels defensive about his life choices, particularly the idea that he’s settled down and giving up. Both men are also insecure by sexually adept women, so it may be natural that they seek the company of each other for solace and mutual understanding. The final act, where the two friends meet in a hotel room for their big night, is a slice of awkward comedy heaven. They haven’t worked out any logistics, locations, warm-ups, anything, and watching them verbally hatch a game plan is hilarious and oddly touching in equal doses. They really don’t know what they’re doing and why they’re there.

The actors have a naturalistic feel because, as I’ve found, the dialogue was almost entirely improvised. They shot in chronological order so to build from conversation to conversation, and you can feel the character dynamics strengthen and deepen. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) has a great, wide fake smile that hides a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. He’s sort of a schlubby everyman that we can empathize with even as he moves forward with his participation in the “art film.” Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and his scraggly beard, effectively conveys a man weary about where his rugged life has led him. He is also hiding behind a guise, the guise of being a nonconformist that chooses to have no earthly ties, but bit-by-bit you see that Andrew is tired of disposable human connections. Leonard and Duplass feel like life-long friends. Then there’s Delmore, who really is the wary, incredulous voice of the audience. She too comes across as realistic under the circumstances, and her reaction when she discovers the true purpose of the “art project” is volatile, yes, but also surprisingly reflective. The three leads never feel like actors; the illusion that these are real people is never broken even given the peculiar circumstances of the premise.

What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story. Given these characters and the amiable direction they follow, Humpday is believable. I suppose it might be easy to dismiss it as another entry in the fly-on-the-wall “mumblecore” film series gaining traction in independent cinema, but Humpday is really more an observational character study that examines male relationships and the sexual politics of being a “man’s man” in today’s world of sexual liberation. There is a nuanced perspective on human sexuality here that I may be erroneously crediting to Shelton simply because she is a woman. It helps to have a more mature, open-minded perspective about the complexities of human behavior for this story to succeed, and I think a female presence behind the camera affords that luxury. There is commentary below the surface; however, Humpday can be entirely enjoyed as a surface-level comedy of an awkward heterosexual showdown.

I find it interesting that the original theatrical poster only featured the two shirtless guys eyeing each other, and with a pink background no less. The DVD cover has inserted Anna between the two guys and gone with the more boy-friendly blue background cover. I think this tiny detail is another reflection of just how uncomfortable the subject matter is for many people. Humpday is an insightful, perceptive little character study that feels real and honest, while at the same time the movie doesn’t allow sexual politics to become the headline. The movie remembers to be funny, often, and any discomfort is worth it.

Nate’s Grade: A

Me, You, and Everyone We Know (2005)

This movie is going to affect people very differently. Writer/director Miranda July, a note performance artist, has created a world of people fumbling for human connection. It’s deeply arty, meaning that meaning will be considerably different per viewer. For whatever reason, I was able to ride July’s artistic wavelength and enjoyed the series of oddball characters and weird vignettes, like a chain of cars keeping a goldfish alive atop one of their roofs. The film deals frankly with sexuality and involves teens experimenting, but the film exists in a world where sexuality still had its curiosities and detached humor, truly like a kid’s point of view. This movie has two of the most profoundly romantic moments of any film I’ve seen all year, but they are just moments. Me, and You, and Everyone We Know is a movie built around moments. There are enough of them for me and I appreciated July’s unique voice.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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