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Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio (2022)

When you have a catchy title like Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, you know you have to deliver the goods. This gleefully schlocky suburban satire horror comedy (how many more adjectives you want?) is the follow-up from director/co-writer Kyle Rayburn, an unabashed genre enthusiast. I was granted an advance copy to review this new Ohio-made indie and I’ll try to remain as objective as possible, dear reader, despite the fact that Kyle is one of the nicest men on Earth and even allowed me to film an episode of my rom-com Web series in his own home. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is more low-key than you may be expecting. Its chill vibes and relaxed, ironic humor are more indicative of a stoner hangout movie than something with demon figures and threats of damnation. I think plenty of viewers could latch onto the fun, weird wavelength of an undemanding silly comedy, although there are places I wish Satanic Soccer Mom had gone even further with its spirited sense of creativity.

Annie (Gracie Hayes-Plazolles) is trying to hold it all together in suburban Ohio. Her husband won the lottery and then vanished, and her suburban community is awash in gossip and speculation about what has happened to him. Annie is trying to raise her two kids alone, keep ahead of adult responsibilities like bills and soccer practice shuttling, and holding back from snapping at the clucking hens of the neighborhood, the Karens, lead by chief Karen Green (Valerie Gilbert). It all changes when she accidentally summons a horned demon, Balthazar (Brian Papandrea), who is willing to grant her three wishes at a price, as per proper Faustian bargains.

There is a breezy charm to Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, a casual, shoulder-shrugging amiability that invites you not to think too hard about the proceedings and just have fun, and if you can connect on that wavelength, then the meandering nature can also be part of that unexpected charm. It’s easy to see the works of Kevin Smith as a reference for Rayburn, but I was also reminded of the hangout cinema of Richard Linklater, where you adjust to the rhythms of characters and their daily lives and interactive camaraderie. Of course, nobody had their boobs literally fall off in Linklater’s world (though there’s still time yet), but it’s that same relaxed tone and feeling that permeates Satanic Soccer Mom. There’s something most amusing about populating your movie with fantastic creatures but keeping a deadpan sense of mundane reality. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the short-lived Adult Swim series Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, a workplace sitcom set in an office literally in hell. If done well, the surprising triviality of the fantastic setup provides its own sly sense of humor. I enjoyed that the movie didn’t have apocalyptic stakes but instead illuminated conflicts very relatable to many: getting over a painful relationship, struggling to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood, fitting in but also knowing when to push back and assert your independence. Having the duplicitous neighborhood Karens be a bigger pain for Annie than an actual demon is a fun reversal. Same as Annie wasting her magically granted wish on ordinary adult requests, like a never-ending cup of iced coffee. The unblinking, roll-with-the-punches attitude of the characters made the movie entertaining even when little was going on from a plot standpoint, and that’s a big boon for an 80-minute indie.

I consider Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio to be a silly buddy film, and it improves greatly once Balthazar becomes entwined in Annie’s domestic drama. This is also because Papandrea (Feaster Sunday) is the funniest performer in the movie. I loved the bickering dynamic between Annie and her demonic little helper. They reminded me of squabbling siblings, cemented even further during a contentious and competitive game of Mario Kart. This is also the key character dynamic for the movie, the ordinary in conflict with the extraordinary, the protagonist suffering and the relief with the strings attached. The movie is never better when these two are sharing the screen. Plazolles-Hayes (Night Work) has a spunky Parker Posey energy to her, an incredulity to her wide-eyed stares and eyebrow arches that feels earned. She’s the straight woman in a series of crazy developments, and Plazolles-Hayes doesn’t get lost in the craziness. Papandrea is a natural hell-raiser, a mischievous performer who makes the most of his material and elevates it with a grinning desperation that makes it all funnier, like a failing comic on stage. Balthazar is also highly engaging when he’s pretending to be a “normal human,” and his obvious, schticky delivery and mannerisms reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical performance in Men in Black. I can still recall the moment he was trying to quickly hide from Annie’s children and just lifted whatever objects were near to badly obscure him (“What are you… four?” Annie berates him). The casual shade Papandrea imbues the line, “Okay… sinner,” is simply award-winning comedy. It’s also a diverting commentary that Annie gets along better with a demon than most humans, though I’m sure there are many among us who could relate. It endears Annie to the audience and proves how unflappable she is despite her troubles, worldly and other-wordly.

I also want to mention a few other performances that made the most with their screen time. Gilbert (Straitjacket) is so amusingly self-satisfied without becoming a full-blown suburbanite caricature of “Midwest nice.” I especially enjoyed the few moments she dropped the act and revealed the curdled reality behind her sweet-smiling facade. Virgil Schnell (Night Work) is hilarious with how transparently desperate he is to be with another woman, even willing to whip off his shirt to help a woman clean up a slight dab of spilled wine. Ellie Church (Harvest Lake, Jessie’s Super Normal Regular Average Day) is well-acquainted with low-budget horror and provides a welcomed sense of easy-going camaraderie for Annie as her lone friend in town.

As one of those who previously watched Rayburn’s first film foray, 2019’s Men in Black-meets-True Blood caper, Night Work, I can see definite growth as a filmmaker. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets (only $5,000 total) and filmed primarily on a iPhone camera, though the low-budget look isn’t a big point of detraction for either movie. You can’t judge a small indie movie made for $5000 and filmed on the weekends by the same technical standards of bigger movies. You have to accept some tech shortcomings, like the absence of dynamic lighting or polished audio or complex camerawork. There’s very little visual coverage in Satanic Soccer Mom, many scenes composed of a closed shot-reverse shot circuit of edit choices, but it took me out of the movie only sparingly. The rough-around-the-edges DIY aesthetic can provide its own micro-budget charm too, and Rayburn and co-writer Ben Reger (Night Work) are aware enough to write around technical limitations and emphasize ideas and quirky character interactions. He even has a character joke in narration, “That’s what we could afford to show you.” Rayburn is also smart to cast well and get out of the way of his actors. The ensemble feel like they’re gelling on the same comedic wavelength, which is harder to do than most would think, and thus each performer feels in concert no matter the wild turns. The makeup effects for Balthazar are stylish and effective on a budget, and his whole denim jacket and button-heavy attire and punk rock attitude reminded me favorably of Viv from the short-lived but brilliant British comedy TV series The Young Ones, formative to my own burgeoning sense of humor.

However, even with the emphasis on the ideas, there are enough moments that left me wanting more. I can understand some viewers feeling cold to its blase tone with its fantastical characters. Some viewers will not be able to get over the fact that a woman has a demon wish-granting service and the creativity only goes so far, mellowing in shallow waters for its own good vibes. With all the wish-granting, reality-altering possibilities that a demon represents, it can be something of a letdown for the wishes to be so mundane and minute. One of Annie’s wishes is for her (minor spoiler warnings) to be able to go out in town and pretend to be someone else, so she magically transforms into a different actress (Nickii Rayburn, the director’s wife, so good husband points there) for one raucous night. I can understand that this wish gets at Annie’s distaste for the oppressive negativity of her town, but couldn’t she just have gone to a different bar in a different town where nobody would know her? She could also just wish for the idiots in town to forget about her. It’s the same for why Annie even chooses to hang out with the Karens if she despises their company so much. I understand why the scene exists from a plot standpoint, as another contrast between Annie and the suburbanites she doesn’t fit in with, but then why even bother spending time with these women? There are engaging character aspects with Annie that feel only briefly touched upon, chief among them her complicated feelings about being abandoned by her husband. There’s a nice moment where Balthazar confirms her suspicions and Plazolles-Hayes gets to emote, finally able to process a key point of grief, and it’s one of the few genuine dramatic moments of the movie. However, without prolonged comedy set pieces, the movie would have benefited with more scenes like this for balance. The movie coasts a bit too long without a larger plot direction, so it can feel very scene-to-scene. Then the end includes multiple deus ex machinas, which can make the preceding problems feel too slight.

While I chuckled throughout, the comedy felt too subdued and too easily satisfied creatively. I’m surprised, given the premise, that there aren’t really comedy set pieces. I suppose there’s one, Annie and her pal getting stoned and attending craft night with the Karens, but that’s it. Much of the humor is ribald banter, so much will rest upon the quality of the dialogue writing. It helps having such sharp contrasts for conflict. I laughed throughout but kept wanting the movie to go further, to build off its gags and complications and peculiar turns. One of the dunder-headed Karens flippantly remarks about what could have happened to Annie’s husband, saying, “become a horse man,” and this would have made a fine opportunity to have her continue this weird fantasy tangent, accidentally revealing her own strange sexual kinks, something to separate her from the herd and then shame her back into social submission. That could have been a running gag. Or Bathazar’s one runty horn being a source of insecurity, something he has to defend (“I’ll have you know, plenty of lady demons have referred to my horns as ‘more than adequate.’”). There’s a truly wonderful random gag about the Karens raising money for “Saxophones for the Homeless,” and I was pleading for a visual representation of this concept, with a homeless man shrugging at the useless gift. I often wish there were comedy scenes and jokes that pushed beyond the first idea, taking one joke and finding a deeper, more belly laugh-inducing bit rather than settling for a passing chuckle. I’m talking about scenes where Annie gets stoned and giggles, or the inclusion of a record scratch sound effect to really ensure that a punchline landed and was meant to be unexpected. I wish Rayburn and Reger demonstrated as much confidence with all their jokes as they do their final gag involving an angel and the selected color of her wings (it’s definitely a memorable exit).

Two movies in and Rayburn is starting to establish a penchant for establishing weird and wild worlds with goofy, profane characters, rich in crude banter and crazy ideas, but worlds that I wish to explore further. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is an amusing and charming movie, especially if one can gel with its overall amiable tone and forgive the inevitable technical shortcomings. I’m far more forgiving of tech issues than I am with narrative and comedy shortcomings, because those are strictly on the creative brain trust fully developing their story potential and exploring the possibilities of their funny. It’s hard not to feel like Satanic Soccer Mom is a solid first draft of a story and could have benefited from a few more passes and polishes to really punch up the comedy and better explore the character dynamics. That stuff isn’t budget dependent. Again, it’s easy to feel the passion everyone had for this project and especially the good times. We need movies that can provide that level of entertainment, no matter their flaws, and Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is likely going to be the most feel-good buddy movie ever with this title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Social Media Monster (2022)

In the age of social media, the concept of a troll is a constant, a person who lives to torment and provoke strong outrages. These proverbial bomb throwers live to antagonize, and Ohio filmmaker Peter John Ross (Horrors of War) has a personal relationship with one, a 40-something wannabe activist and filmmaker, but what he’s most known for is his ever-expanding litany of harassment and reality-defying martyrdom status. Social Media Monster is a new documentary that gives the man his platform, though likely not as he would request. Ross specifically explores the relatively recent interactions between his troll and the bemused citizens of St. Joseph, Missouri (population: 75,000) as he caused general chaos, discord, and confusion throughout 2018.

The biggest boon for Ross, as a filmmaker, and we, as viewers, is that there is no shortage of recordings of its troll. For whatever reason, he recorded himself extensively, likely exemplifying his narcissistic personality and desire to be famous, and the fruits of those loquacious labors are an amazing resource for the movie. To have your subject offer to dictate all their thinking, quite often contradicting earlier statements, makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Your subject is providing their own insights and contrasts. I’m curious what his reported documentary on being homeless in America could offer. This troll isn’t a wholly fascinating figure alone, but his victim complex can serve as a microcosm of others that present challenges to a larger society, people fueled entirely by grievance even when they have none to speak of because someone must be to blame and it won’t be them. He appears so eager to be deemed special, to be seen as a hero, someone fighting the good fight. He’s bounced from being a journalist to an activist to a documentary filmmaker, and at one point a Wagyu steak salesman, and is still searching for whatever magic combination will give him what he’s seeking, respect and sense of importance. In another light, this could be the stuff of tragedy, but he is too much of an incessant antagonist to feel lasting sympathy for. He spent the day bombarding one guy on social media who just reached out to ask if he was simply okay (the movie brings receipts for all the profane and incensed texts and messages). He’s targeting real people, making real threats, and leading to real distress, and amazingly, he’s recording himself doing and discussing much of it. Social Media Monster has an intriguing mystery man of a central subject that happens to want this very spotlight, so in some ways it’s a perfect match.

The troll appears a troubled individual, the kind we might hold up for mockery and dismiss in the past but now we see all-too often lashing out. The entire 90 minutes feels like the unsettling biopic of a man before he went on a violent rampage. He mentions having bipolar disorder, among several other possible mental diagnoses, and he is clearly harassing and threatening many individuals who unfortunately cross his path. Even those who are allies can quickly become the latest villain in an ongoing nebulous conspiracy of the world seemingly in unison fighting to thwart his noble endeavors. Mentally unstable loners with easy access to money and weapons, and simmering grievances that will never cool over, are too often dismissed by law enforcement when they happen to be white guys. This troll could be yet another example of the danger of dismissal, and Ross argues that his troll has been getting away with his misdeeds for so long that it has emboldened him into more egregious actions. The man has made literal terrorist threats about attacking nuclear facilities and police officers. It’s hard to imagine someone getting away with these same threats if they just happened to be, oh I don’t know, Muslim or black (especially a black Muslim).

Why then is he seen as more an irritant than a credible threat? Beyond obvious implicit racial bias, I think it’s because the bulk of his harassment happens to be online, and the world of online discourse is one law enforcement would rather ignore. Just look at the inconsistent application of revenge porn laws to protect victims from abusers. It feels like nobody wants to intervene because he is considered a keyboard warrior, a nuisance the equivalent of some guy yelling on a street corner. That’s a risky judgment. Hope it doesn’t look foolish later.

Social Media Monster knows that its subject is its strongest selling point, so Ross keeps things tied to his access to the St. Joseph locals and their strange stories. Not all of these are of equal footing, but the movie has so much ammunition and doesn’t dwell on any singular anecdote too long, so you just have to be patient and a new development will unfurl shortly. The interviews are direct and generally punchy, with many all too happy to expound on their strange interactions with this unknowable individual. I loved every time the impressively bearded local city councilman was able to speak again. Between the candid interviews, the copious amount of existing footage, and no shortage of bizarre anecdotes of bizarre behavior, Social Media Monster is a movie that I wished was longer and larger in scope. I’m used to documentaries tackling a larger macro subject through an example that we follow in more specific detail, but Ross avoids making any significant social pronouncements. It almost feels like the title is a bit misleading.

This is one of the few times that a post-credit scene actually made me reflect differently on the film beforehand, let alone with an Ohio-made indie release. After the relatively short closing credits there’s a stream of clips cut together showing that targets extended beyond the incidents we have spent 90 minutes documenting. He harassed a writer on Modern Family, the Cartoon Network, Megadeth, Dr. Phil, local news reporters, and activists including Erin Freakin’ Brockovich. All these incidents will be explored in… Social Media Monster: The Series, and as soon as that promise was made, I deflated a little. The movie ends up becoming an extended pilot for the ongoing weekly adventures of this troll and his trail of confused victims.

My biggest complaint of Social Media Monster is the constrained nature of its scope, keeping almost exclusively to a one-year period of concentrated harassment on the citizens of St. Joseph in 2018. The director has a pre-existing relationship with this troll going back a decade, and yet it is strangely kept to a minimum in the film. I kept wanting the movie to break free of its closed focus, especially with the question of who is this man and charting his own actual history. The story behind where he got all his money is anticlimactic and needing more inquiry. We’re told about past disagreements like his contention that Adult Swim ripped off his proposed short-form TV concept/pitch for the Cartoon Network. We even see a brief clip of this, and oh I wanted more on this strange odyssey. I wanted to know more about these other crazy incidents rather than going into even more granular detail with the same residents of St. Joseph, and at the very end, the movie reveals that it could have done exactly that but elected not to. The movie was hoarding its other titillating non-St. Joseph anecdotes and interviews and evidence to lead into a TV series. It made me feel cheated out of the better movie that was being held captive to leverage interest into a sequel series.

Social Media Monster is a fun and often funny 90 minutes with a preposterous subject that is all too eager to provide his own tools for public scrutiny and mockery. The movie barely scratches the surface on who this man is, beyond of course as an unstoppable troll. There is more to be had here especially with the wealth of material available to Ross and his crew. For the sense of a documentary film, I wish Ross had taken full advantage of that cinematic wealth at his disposal.

Nate’s Grade: B

Adeline (2022)

The story behind Greg James, the filmmaker from Ohio, is surprisingly tied to, of all things, dodgeball. In 2004, the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was released and grossed $168 million worldwide, but there were two legal challenges accusing copyright violation to writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, and both have central Ohio connections. The first was by writers Ernando Ashoka Thomas and David Price, a Bexley, Ohio native that put his own experiences as an adult dodgeball tournament organizer into the script. Where things get interesting is that this other script, entitled Dodgeball: The Movie, was passed along in March 2001 to Shaun Redick, who worked for an agency and was friends with Thurber. This was one month before Thurber finished and registered his draft of his dodgeball screenplay. During the copyright lawsuit in 2005, a judge determined that a jury might “reasonably infer” that Thurber had access to the other dodgeball screenplay via Redick. There were other similarities between the two scripts that appear to be more than just formula and genre trappings, like both featuring a wheelchair-bound former dodgeball champion who becomes a coach and dies in a freak accident midway through before the big game but then reappears as a ghost to cheer them on.

The second and lesser-known suit was for authorship of that other dodgeball script, and that’s where James comes in. He and Thomas worked together under the YNOT production company they founded. They directed and produced a movie in 2001, Raw Fish, that Thomas wrote. Afterwards, in 2001, Thomas was working on the dodgeball script and James claims he was a co-author (Price was not listed as co-author until 2004 in screenplay registration). Thomas listed himself as the sole author on all the drafts he copyrighted and shared, and because James did not assert his copyright dispute until 2005, the statute of limitations ran out. James said that Thomas removed James’ name from the cover page before submitting the draft but never inquired further because he trusted his would-be partner. Lacking proof of collusion, and beyond the three-year window, James’ case was dismissed. The suit with Thomas and Price against Fox was later settled for an undisclosed sum, and James was left with nothing.

James returned to Columbus after 25 years in L.A. and was inspired to make a local story into a feel-good family film that could inspire others. Adeline is based on a horse at Serendipity Stables that provided therapeutic care for children with disabilities and those on the spectrum. In 2002, a tornado struck and Adeline reportedly held people against a barn wall to protect them rather than running away from danger. The horse’s bravery was rewarded by locals donating over $15,000 to allow Adeline to receive life-saving surgery (Adeline lived another three years). Adeline is James’ homecoming, and it’s sweet and slickly produced to look like any number of other faith-based inspirational family films, and that’s also its problem, if you find that to be a problem.

In a small Ohio town, Kay (Jane Mowder) moves onto a horse ranch and her presence changes everything. Bethany (Orli Gottesman) is running from foster home to foster home for setting fires, but one encounter with Adeline the horse and she’s rethinking her pyromania. The town preacher John (David Chokachi) and his wife Terry (Erin Bethea) have an autistic son who takes a shine to Adeline and actually speaks. John is skeptical and worries putting faith into Kay and her holistic solutions will lead to another disappointment. He challenges his parishioners to not lose sight of where to place their faith, and then the big tornado comes twistin’ through.

If you’re fans of sweet feel-good movies, Adeline will likely hit most of what you’re looking for, but I found the central idea a little too simplistic to the point of incredulity. In short, this is a magic horse. This is the only conclusion I must derive from what I see onscreen. I love animals. I always have. As my fiancé would attest, they flock to me. With that being said, I have a problem with animal movies because too many of them feel lazily projected onto the animal as its symbol. I had this same feeling with the 2020 inexplicably Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher: “Does this octopus really see this man in a snorkel as a friend or an ally? She reaches out a tentacle to touch the appendage of this underwater man, but what does that mean? Is this signaling a friendship or is it merely signaling an animal taking stock of its surroundings? I don’t know and depending upon your personal relationship with the animal world, you will either accept everything [this man] says at face value without skepticism or you will see him as a slightly foolish romantic.” Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is Bethany looking once into her eyes to break her free from her fire-setting impulses. Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is a couple of rides and the preacher’s autistic son is now talking. This horse is spoken about in such grandiose terms and yet the screenplay by Sam Lewis doesn’t make the horse a character, which can be done for animals (see: Seabiscuit). The problem is that if effort is not put into giving the horse something, then the horse is merely a plot device for easy miracles. It might as well have been a magic couch whereupon every sit heals thy sitter. Given this horse’s track record, I’m surprised the town didn’t trot Adeline into their office to fix any budget shortfall. I know this is based on a true story, and I’m being more than a little facetious, but we need more from the drama than “Person A nuzzles horse or rides horse. Person A is now better. Repeat.”

Where the movie seems to want to go is the idea of alternate routes of healing, and this has dramatic potential that’s never fully realized. Much of the conflict revolves around John being skeptical and unwilling to see the benefit of the horse. His job asks him to put his faith in God and not a horse. He’s also hurting because of the frustrations with raising a non-verbal autistic child that he has difficulty communicating and connecting with. At one point, he even says he blames God for cursing his family (yikes). It looks like Adeline is going to be a conflict between traditional faith and alternative healing, an Old School versus New Age kind of battle. It appears that John might even feel threatened by the horse, like his parishioners will start looking to the special horse for answers and healing rather than their local minister. Does he feel threatened? Does he think his authority is being challenged by the horse or by God? Had the script really explored this personal crisis it could have made for an interesting character study about belief systems in conflict. Instead, it mostly plays as John being the most stubborn man who has to be the last one to accept the gift of Adeline. Lacking that depth, it means we’re just waiting for John to finally come around to the obvious, and it can be a frustrating waiting game. Even after the horse protects a dozen people from a tornado, David still pushes back. He even lays out a theory that since the horse farm was the only one hit by the tornado that God must disapprove (people literally groan and walk out of church in disgust after he proposes this theory). I think re-centering the movie on one man’s crisis of faith, accelerated by already feeling shaken from his son’s diagnosis, would be the smarter storytelling foundation rather than making the horse the magic new neighbor.

The story has too many characters and subplots that don’t get enough attention, but at the same time Adeline benefits from a pacing standpoint by having more stories to switch over. The Bethany storyline could have been its own movie but she feels more like Exhibit A for the miraculous potential of the horse. We’re told that she can’t stop starting fires and bounces from foster home to foster home, and all of a sudden Kay agrees to adopt her on the spot, and why not if all it takes is one encounter with Adeline to prove curative for Bethany’s troubles? Because this conflict is amazingly resolved so quickly, we have to add the extra conflict of the town teenagers bullying Bethany for her past, though this is comprised to one scene where the kid she may or may not have a crush on, Jason (Jake Satow), stands up for her and punches the lead bully. This is the end of Bethany being picked on for her past. Having an outcast character in a small town is a good viewpoint and a natural source of conflict going up against community expectations. Unfortunately, Bethany is just treated like a testimonial. Likewise, the autistic child is merely a plot device, and the script then transforms Terry into little more than a pleading support network. She wants her husband to acknowledge the healing power of the horse. That’s about it. She’s the sweetly smiling, eyes-glistening “why won’t you see?” figure in these kinds of movies. I think the character that suffers the most is Kay. She doesn’t feel like a person but yet more of a plot device. She stirs up the status quo, and she has a mysterious past, and yet she’s just deliverer of miracles without further dimension.

Even though its budget was half a million dollars, Adeline looks and sounds like a professional movie that would ably fill the scheduling slots of a Hallmark or Christian TV network. The cinematography by Dan Parsons (Treasure Lies) is rich and autumnal in its color palate, and the use of dappled lighting and depth of field visual arrangements helps add an extra pleasing cinematic quality to the movie. The score is also quite nice by Erik Schroeder, a man with over 100 scoring titles to his name. It’s pleasant and twinkly without overwhelming the emotions on screen. The special effects with the tornado and its destructive wake are quite good for the budget. The acting is above average too. Mowder (Foxcatcher) is dignified, Chokachi (Baywatch) is perfectly flummoxed, Bethea (Fireproof) is winsome, and Gottesman (1-800-HOT-NITE) has a natural presence that makes me think she has even bigger opportunities on the horizon. Plus, there’s the always enjoyable Ralph Scott (Double Walker) as John’s unflappable friend and soothing voice of reason.

There is plenty to enjoy with Adeline. It’s a passion project where you can feel the affection of everyone, and James has an invisible ease behind the camera. The acting and technical merits are solid and the pacing keeps things moving smoothly. Where Adeline frustrated me is with its screenplay that settled too often on its staid formula. We’ve seen these kinds of movies before and Adeline rests upon that familiarity a little too often for me. Genre fans will find enough to satisfy them, and everything is kept at such a family-friendly level of nice (even the disagreements are short and never more than G-rated) that is wholesome without feeling overly maudlin. I think the screenplay could have done much more with its pieces, but my opinion is going to be a minority for the movie’s target audience. Adeline is a nice movie about good people experiencing good tidings and will leave many people feeling, mostly, good.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Story for Winter (2021)

Writer/director Nathan Weidner is a local teacher at Canal Winchester schools where he teaches video production and French. The 54-year-old has made two other movies before, both of which available on YouTube, but it’s clear that A Story for Winter is his passion project. The man wrote the first draft in 2009 and was rewriting it for over a decade. It’s inspired upon his own real-life family tragedy. Weidner’s daughter Meah was born in 1988 with cerebral palsy. She was non-verbal and Weidner said he always wondered what she could be imagining. The movie’s end is even dedicated to her with archival footage. Sadly, Meah was taken tragically when her mother’s new boyfriend shook her too violently (he is now serving a life sentence). In the summer of 2021, Weidner gathered former high school students, a budget of $3000, and his iPhone 12, and over the course of 15 August days he made his movie. Weidner was the photographer, editor, producer, and even wrote and performed a mournful song in the movie. A Story for Winter is currently available on Amazon and is a clear labor for love for Weidner and everyone involved wanting to see this through. Their intentions are pure and lovely. I wish the final movie was a bit more focused to better tap into its accessible emotions.

Dr. Owen Hughes (Adam Ashton Scott) is the new small-town Ohio doctor after his 80-year-old predecessor kicks the bucket. He’s chaffing under adapting to the new position, and he insists he will not see children for medical consultation. He freaks out when his newly eloped wife, Connie (Allison Kuck), even suggests they could have a child. His chilly stance begins to soften when he meets Winter (Chloe Gardner), an ailing child in town with cerebral palsy who was abandoned by her drug-addict parents. She’s being taken care of by the kindly Cora Preston (Cynthia Smith) who has opened her home to many foster children, most of whom have some form of special needs. She recognizes that Winter will not be long for this world but that doesn’t mean the life she has remaining cannot still have its rewards. As her condition worsens, Dr. Hughes opens himself up by telling allegorical fantasy stories to Winter about his own troubled family history.

The first thing you have to acknowledge with A Story for Winter are its technical and professional limitations. It’s unfair to complain too much about obvious limitations of time and budget. You’ll notice that there is very little editing coverage or camera movement in the movie. Until the late narration-heavy fantasies, just about every shot is stationary. Characters will often talk directly in front of one another and the edits primarily feature a shot-reverse shot rhythm that feels born out of necessity than creative vision. The excuse of the newly moved couple explains the sparse nature of the home furnishings. However, there are some budgetary choices that made me scratch my head that could have been avoided. The setting is around Christmas to slot the movie as one of those feel-good holiday movies, a thriving industry unto itself. There are some references to Christmas as a theme of giving and blessings but it’s more a superficial connection, so I think the story could have stood on its own minus the holly jolly. Regardless, it’s a snowy Christmas season that keeps several characters housebound. Considering the budget and that it was filmed in the summer, I would avoid anything that would give away the unreality of the season. This movie disagrees. We see obvious green screen shots of Dr. Hughes driving in the snow. Even more befuddling, there is a plurality of exterior shots of the home except it has been rendered as a completely CGI model. It is not subtle. I kept wondering why even bother with these shots. Does it make the movie more seasonal? If so, why not use affordable stock footage or, failing that, wait until actual winter in Ohio and record thirty seconds of an establishing exterior shot of the same house but now with real snow? So even with being considerate to the limitations at hand, there are creative decisions that seem iffy.

I think many fans of sweet Hallmark movies will find A Story for Winter to be heartwarming and be inspired from its message. Characters talk about the value of human life as well as the prospect of human suffering in familiar Christian terminology. I’ve never been a big fan of “this person exists to teach you how to be a better person” as a plot device, but I can understand and sympathize with the human impulse to find larger meaning in personal tragedy. However, where the movie feels more complete, for me, on a message front is that even those who have limited times on this planet are still of value and our compassion. I’m reminded of 2016’s Arrival that hinged on a twist ending that the (six-year-old spoilers ahead) flashbacks were actually flash-forwards, and Amy Adams wasn’t mourning a past daughter but knew ahead of time that her eventual daughter would tragically die at a young age, and yet she chose to have her. For that review, I wrote, “Knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes, she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her.” I thought it was very nice when the movie gives Winter her voice, granted it’s through dream sequences, which means it’s Dr. Hughes’ conception of what that voice could be. I wish the movie had given her more time to express herself rather than utilize her as the key to getting Dr. Hughes to finally reveal his own family drama, though also through the lens of fantasy.

My emotional investment was stalled because of two main factors: Dr. Hughes being a jerk and having far, far too many underdeveloped subplots competing for attention. Our protagonist is a prickly person, immediately dismissive and practically disdainful of his medical practice coworkers. He’s also a jerk to his wife and makes a snide comment whenever he feels she could have been doing more to settle their home. He keeps complaining about eating on disposable plates or Styrofoam containers. Hey, buddy, you can put dishes away too. They are recently married, eloped after a year of dating, and Connie’s extended family is not too happy about it. What better way to assure her than have her marital partner is the right person for her with him being a mean jerk? He’s also actively hiding his past and hastily establishes a cover story for not explaining to her that the town sheriff (Bryce Millikin) is his “uncle.” This should all be red flags to his wife, and how he treats her makes me dislike this man even more. For half of the movie, Dr. Hughes is a jerk, and then after the hour mark, he just spills his own personal history. There are short flashback clips peppered throughout of a young Owen with his distraught, inebriated, irritable mother and his younger sister suffering from an incurable illness. It’s enough to establish why a child with a terminal ailment would affect him so, never mind just general empathy. Now, beginning with a grumpy character and watching them transform is nothing new to storytelling. Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t exactly a nice guy either, although we got glimpses of his past self so we knew there was a core of decency that could possibly return.

The movie cannot be a character study of Dr. Hughes finding his way back from his grief and grievance. The character doesn’t have enough dimension to him because the movie is divided with so many subplots. Namely, in our 100 minutes of movie, we have: 1) fitting into a new town and sliding into the shoes of a beloved predecessor, 2) being newlyweds with his wife and the strain of their marriage, 3) caring for Winter and opening up to her, 4) the many lives of Aubrey House, 5) Connie’s family unexpectedly coming over for a Christmas gathering, 6) Dr. Hughes explaining Winter’s past through a fantasy allegory, 7) Dr. Hughes communicating with Winter through his lucid dreams, 8) Dr. Hughes sharing his own family tragedy through a fantasy allegory, and 9) Dr. Hughes coming to terms with his relationship with his mother and forgiving her. There are more aspects to each of these, and some are more prominent than others, but that’s A Story for Winter. It’s easy to see the connected tracks but the narrative could have benefited with some careful pruning to better emphasize its most essential moments.

I don’t think much is added by keeping Connie in the dark about her husband’s past. You can still dole out the truth over time, saving the full picture for the end of your movie. It’s not like she’s seriously second-guessing her marriage, or at least we are not given a scene that expresses this doubt. I also think little is gained through the first allegorical vehicle, using the realm of children’s fantasy to explain Winter’s own past to her. The character of Winter, again through the lens of Dr. Hughes’ subconscious mind, doesn’t seem too concerned about coming to terms with her own family’s faults. Perhaps she’s meant as the starter vehicle for Dr. Hughes to then come to terms, but why go through this process twice? Revealing Dr. Hughes’ backstory is also not a mystery that I was too desperate to uncover. The movie seems to think delaying the full information will provide more dramatic catharsis, but I’m not as certain. I think uncovering Winter’s past, then dealing with it through allegory, then doing the same with Dr. Hughes, is just making things too busy. Especially when Connie, her family, and everyone else is put on literal hold during these lengthy fantasy interludes, freezing them out from further development. The only two characters the movie really examines are Winter and Dr. Hughes, so why not consolidate? Too much feels ladled on to either pad the running time, make superficial connections to holiday film staples to satisfy its presumed audience, or reflect upon Owen’s emotional journey. If the world is cultivated to better bring one man to a change of heart, then let’s give enough room for that journey to feel well-developed and organic and satisfying.

The conclusion about acceptance and, more importantly, about forgiveness is sweet and still has some dramatic points that will hit plenty of viewers. Weidner knows how to craft a workable redemption story, though much of the comedy bits are a bit stale and hokey, though that could also be a selling point for fans of Hallmark movies that view hokey comedy as comfort food. My criticisms are directed at what could help make this the improved version of the screen story. Streamlining, being less precious with our protagonist back-story, and giving more consideration and depth to Connie would have benefited the overall emotional investment and uplift.

A Story for Winter is a nice movie made by people who really wanted to see the director’s vision become a reality, something so close to home and so personal. I won’t fault the limited budget, the bland editing and shot selections, or the amateur acting by the leads. However, creativity is not dependent on money. Even with its minuscule budget, I think Weidner could have made further judicious choices to maximize the characters and story he had on the page. There are interesting characters here but they are too defined by their circumstances, thus becoming static mouthpieces about their experiences and not enough about them in the present. Maybe I’m being a seasonal Grinch, as admittedly Christmas movies are not a salve for me, so take everything with whatever caution you’d heed. A Story for Winter feels a little too beholden to its message and its feel-good holiday genre trappings to really explore the human drama at its beating heart. It’s a commendable micro-budget DIY effort with all the right intentions, though some of its storytelling choices managed to hold back my full intrigue and investment.

Nate’s Grade: C

Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

The Other Side of Darkness (2022)

Adam Deierling is a native Ohioan who spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the L.A. film scene before relocating back to the Buckeye State in 2008. He has since focused on wedding videography and short films and spoken that his goal was to get a professional feature film off the ground locally, an admirable goal, and he wanted to create a family-friendly adventure film that could inspire others. That result is The Other Side of Darkness, written and directed by Deierling and filmed entirely in Ohio and West Virginia. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with its major plot elements and feels a bit too lost by its own creative indecision.

Taylor Jo (Maggie Callahan), a.k.a. TJ is turning sixteen soon and eager to leave her small Ohio town. She works in her foster father’s auto shop and hates it and the direction of her life. Then one day she gets a mysterious note in the mail with a key that leads to an old Jeep. Turns out, the Jeep belonged to her biological mother and the note is from her still-living grandfather, Jack (Scott C. Davis). She hops in her new car, her best friend Hannah (Olivia Billings) and her cute brother Patrick (Drake Tobias) come along for the ride, and they head out to meet gramps. However, he might not be all that he seems, and a looming threat emerges that might cause the power system to go down, and then who can these beleaguered teens trust in these troubled times?

The Other Side of Darkness is like several different scripts stitched together, none of them richly developed or integrated to the other, which makes for an unfulfilling and tedious experience. Each of the half hours feels like a different movie. The first 30 minutes establishes the small-town life for TJ and her desire to escape, especially her predator of a foster parent. Then the next 30 minutes is about TJ and her friends going on a road trip to West Virginia to meet her biological grandpa and for TJ to learn more about her departed mother. Then the next 30 minutes is a mystery of whether or not the grandparent is who he says he is and discovering the terrain. Then the final 30 minutes is an action thriller to thwart homegrown terrorists. Each of these sections goes on far longer than it needs to, each of them presents very little sustained character development, and each of them feels adrift when compared to the other section. In the barest sense, these sections have a tenuous cause-effect relationship; however, the difference is whether the narrative feels like it’s actually building from scene-to-scene or just biding its time. I don’t know why we need a full half-hour to establish how awful TJ’s life is, especially throwing in the topic of sexual molestation, a serious subject that feels shoddily mishandled. The hook of this movie is the idea of our power system falling. Even the tagline says, “Who will you become when the power fails?” Well fear not, dear reader, because, spoiler alert, you’ll never have to wonder because the power grid doesn’t go down at all. The marketing sure looks like it’s going to be about people surviving in a world without power, with society possibly breaking down, but in reality, it’s about stopping two yokels from blowing up their local power station. That’s right, it’s not some far-reaching conspiracy that would trigger the crumbling of America’s interconnected infrastructure like the downfall of the Death Star. Nope. So, even if they blew up this lone power station, the power company would just come out and restore power. For a movie literally called The Other Side of Darkness and playing up a powerless world of survival, the actual employment of these big plot elements is strangely myopic and half-hearted.

Perhaps the title is in reference to the personal journey of our protagonist and her self-discovery, and I’ll humor this charitable interpretation and explain why this still doesn’t work. TJ’s story feels like it should have the right material to be engaging and even inspiring. The first part of the movie establishes her attitude, her plight, and eventually her escape via mysterious family member. This sets us off on her to discover her birth family and perhaps a little more of herself. When she meets her grandfather, he has one teary-eyed monologue, and then the rest feels like everyone is just dithering around and waiting for instructions on what to do. Grandpa gives TJ taped recordings her mother made with the intention of her daughter to one day listen. I don’t understand why this plot element was not explored far more in depth. This is her direct line of communication with her mother, her ability to hear her voice, listen to her singing, and emotionally connect with a woman who has long since departed her life. I also don’t understand why TJ isn’t interrogating her grandfather non-stop about her mother and father, or even simply bonding with dear old grandad and he her. It feels like right after everyone establishes their identities, the characters are just aimlessly hanging around loitering. In one early scene, it looks like Hannah and her brother are asleep on the couch behind TJ as she talks to grandad for the first time. I was mistaken because Hannah then moves, so she’s not asleep but she looks transparently bored (I’m sorry this family reunion couldn’t be more exciting for you). The writing for the characters keeps their conversations very surface-level. Every person is flat-out telling each other what they feel, who they are, what their personal journeys constitute. It’s a clunky, inauthentic manner of speaking that shows the writer’s too obvious hand.

Another factor that keeps me emotionally distant from the movie is how little it makes use of its near two-hour running time. There are long stretches that resemble a glorified car commercial. TJ, Hannah, and her brother go riding along and the music rises in celebratory volume and then things just keep going from there. With the drone shots of the car passing along a dusty trail, the interior shots of the characters laughing and smiling maniacally, and the attached camera angles to show the wheels flying across the muddy roads, all you’d need is to slap “Life is a Highway” and some ad copy at the bottom and it would be indistinguishable from any glossy car commercial. Why does this bother me? It’s because the movie is unmistakably filling time, dragging out its plot with extended sequences of transportation. There are numerous sequences of people walking from Point A to Point B, especially trouncing through the woods, and rather than see one sequence of a character walking to establish distance, we get four or five. This is all at the expense of storytelling and character, and that’s what I chafe at. Let’s take as another example the best friend character Hannah. In the first 30 minutes, the film establishes her as TJ’s only friend and a supportive outlet, enough so that she agrees to come along when TJ wants to track her out-of-state grandfather. Hannah and her brother spend what appears to be days away from home and I kept wondering what their parents would be doing, whether they would be calling the police, especially since Hannah cannot get cell service. This plot point bothered me for two reasons: 1) why can’t Hannah just travel in the car to reach an area where she has service, and 2) why does Hannah even need to be here at all? At least her brother becomes an underdeveloped romantic interest for TJ. Hannah’s role is inconsequential. And, again, all of these dawdling decisions are at the expense of the dramatic potential of the plot, of a granddaughter learning about her mother and bonding with her grandfather for the first time. Once the movie reunites its characters, it feels so shiftless and waiting for delayed instruction.

From a technical standpoint, The Other Side of Darkness is low-budget but has a nice sheen of professionalism for a $15,000 budget. I have seen movies with ten to twenty times that budget that don’t look as good as this. The cinematography by co-producer Vinny Sisson is crisp and with satisfying visual compositions. The acting is generally competent. Nobody will astound but nobody took me out of the movie with a bad performance. I thought Davis (Chosen, Between the Walls) has a warm and weathered presence that improved the role. Callahan reminded me of Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, I Still Believe). Billings reminded me of Sarah Yarkin (2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I can only imagine what these people could have done with a superior screenplay that allowed them the material and space to really dive into their character dilemmas with nuance and emotional authenticity. The one technical aspect that needed some curtailing is the overzealous musical score by Niklas Wempe. The score is everywhere and never subtle; it is loud, in your face, and trumpeting what is happening onscreen, pushing moments into unintended levels of farce, like people walking through the woods now feel like they must be running for their lives when the reality of the circumstances is nowhere near as urgent. The musical score is so intrusive and old fashioned that it reminded me of 1940s moviemaking.

At almost two hours long, The Other Side of Darkness is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s not the movie it advertises itself as delivering. Just looking at that poster, you might surmise a post-social breakdown thriller like The Trigger Effect, or maybe even a nostalgic 80s adventure like The Goonies. You would be let down by either genre expectation. Sadly, the movie cannot live up to its own dramatic premise of a family reunion between grandfather and granddaughter sharing their common link, a deceased loved one they can relive with the other. It’s bizarre to watch a movie with such potent storytelling elements and seeming so indifferent to them or confused what should be done. This feels like a first draft of a screenplay, where characters are just expositing their direct feelings and desires, unencumbered by subtext. Too often the movie just has its characters milling about, and at two hours in length this is inexcusable. The power outage thriller concept feels almost entirely tacked on to provide more of a marketable angle. It’s shockingly underdeveloped and relatively unimportant in the film’s grand scheme of human drama. Often with first-time filmmakers also dabbling in their screenwriting, I find the stories that would have sufficed as short films expanded into feature-length but not given the attention for the adaptation to succeed. The Other Side of Darkness proves that Deierling has the technical chops to make the most with a micro-budget. I just hope his next feature takes more time to really establish what it wants to be and how best to develop and achieve these goals. The Other Side of Darkness is a little too much in the dark.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Straitjacket (2021)

I genuinely forgot that I had supported Straitjacket, a new Ohio-made indie thriller filmed in the Dayton area several years hence. I know some people involved in the production and remember seeing a teaser trailer years ago asking for further editing donations. I could not remember if I had actually donated to its post-production costs and sure enough, in the end credits, there is my name under the thanks section for financial assistance. We’ll see if writer/director/co-star/editor Phillip Wiedenheft feels like listing my name was a mistake after this review. Straitjacket is a moderately successful thriller that entertains as long as it keeps things unbalanced.

The first thing we know about Wolf (Wiedenheft) is that he’s getting wasted in the woods. He awakens the next morning and loads a rifle and shoots at glass bottles. Except his shot goes beyond the bottle. He hears screaming and discovers his shot hit an old man walking through the woods. The man’s granddaughter, Lola (KateLynn Newberry), chases after Wolf, who hops into his car and drives away. Wolf is desperate to escape but he doesn’t have enough money for a plane ticket. He also might have left behind more than a few incriminating items in the woods after he quickly ran off. Wolf tries to take refuge with his dealer, the few family and friends who may still speak to him, while Lola languishes in despair and wonders if she can find the killer.

Straitjacket owes a creative debt to the films of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Hold the Dark), the man who worked nervy tension to a breaking point in his elegantly constructed indie thrillers (I immediately re-watched Green Room following this movie too). The tone and visual palate of this movie reminds me plenty of 2013’s Blue Ruin, a superb movie that follows a bearded vagrant on the run after an act of vengeance places a target on his head. It’s a revenge story stripped to the bone and free from the bombastic spectacle of bigger movies exploiting the same territory. The hero in that film, a drifter, wasn’t particularly skilled at killing, or defending himself, and was clumsy and all-too human as he brought a maelstrom of pain onto his life. It’s easy to make these same connections with Straitjacket, where it almost literally begins with a literal bang, a very easy to follow starting point stripped of exposition. Before the five-minute mark, our main character has killed someone in an accident and is now on the run. There’s a pleasingly frantic nature to the plotting, going from one desperate gamble to another, trying to figure out a possible escape as well as covering up his culpability. Wolf, just like the protagonist of Blue Ruin, is not particularly excelled when it comes to crime. He screws up. He has to correct his mistakes. He gets into debt to people who hold leverage over him. He has to scrounge up money in order to secure the things he needs to flee. The screenplay connects the dots in a way that doesn’t feel overly contrived even when the final act involves the ironic crossing of paths of all the necessary characters. That is a common occurrence in tragedy, the nature of inescapable fate and so we allow it, and Straitjacket is a tragedy disguised as a runaway thriller. If anything, it’s about people trying to escape from their mental and physical pain.

At the half-hour mark, the narrative switches perspectives, and we now see things from the victim’s point of view. In the hours before the fatal accident, we see Lola and her grandfather going about their day before he is taken permanently from this Earth. They discuss her process of recovering from addiction and share a small but heartfelt moment planting a tree mingled with the ashes of loved ones, Lola’s mother and grandmother (I think?). The old man says Lola is the only family he has left and he doesn’t want to come out here and plant another tree. Just with that line, with that moment, the filmmakers have managed to say everything they need to say in a meaningful and character-centric fashion. From there, much of the next half hour is Lola trying to make sense of her sudden loss. I thought perhaps the narrative had flipped and we were going to follow Lola as she tracked down Wolf and enact her own vengeance, but the movie doesn’t really do that either. She stumbles upon him again just because he returns to the scene of the crime and she recognizes his car, but her agency stops at calling for help from an ex. That’s disappointing because she could have been the right participant for the audience to root for.

And therein lies one of the issues holding back Straitjacket from real gut-churning dramatic greatness, the fact that you don’t really root for any character to achieve his or her goal. While streamlining the narrative has made the plot relatively tight and quick to start, we also don’t really get much in the way of fleshing out Wolf as a person. We know he’s self-destructive, we know he’s struggling, and a caravan of interactions with minor supporting players fill us in on the myriad ways he is disappointing others (he has a son he never sees, he’s stolen from family before, he’s gotten into trouble with his dealer, etc.). He’s just sort of a screw-up but we aren’t given redeeming qualities, we aren’t given moments that allow a personality to shine through, where we can see his hopes, maybe a glimmer of his time and who he was before his addictions. He’s less a character and more a walking Tragic Symbol with antsy legs. The same with Lola. She’s suffering, she’s hurting, she wants to find her grandfather’s killer and bring them to justice. But does she do anything to actively achieve this? Not really. She lucks into attending the same drug house that Wolf does, and this sets up a finale that tries to have it both ways, ultimately ending on redemption and closure but not quite managing the catharsis of either. That’s because the limited characterization made the later emotional investment limited as well.

Take a look at Blue Ruin for comparison on how it could have been done effectively. It’s established why the main character’s life has been in shambles, he finds the person responsible for murdering his parents, takes his clumsy vengeance, and the rest of the movie is him outrunning the mounting and bloody repercussions. That movie works because the act of violence that kicks off the scramble is eventually revealed to be justifiable from the character’s perspective (his own sister, whom he initially hides with, congratulates him). He’s also the underdog as the forces coming after him are armed, dangerous, and larger, so then the movie becomes how this one man can use his few resources and lead time to outsmart his eventual attackers. It becomes naturally engaging because the odds are stacked against him and every time he surprises or beats them back is another victory and satisfying to watch. Straitjacket doesn’t afford similar satisfaction for a viewer. That’s the difference between a thriller and a tragedy, not that Blue Ruin was absent its own stark sense of tragedy as revenge was deemed ultimately as self-harm. There isn’t that push with Straitjacket. Lola isn’t actively looking for her culprit, and her path toward vengeance isn’t taking a toll. Sure, you could argue it’s what causes her to consider relapsing back to addictions but even that struggle is kept very generalized.

When the movie attempts to connect to larger social and political issues, it feels more grasping than edifying. Both of the main characters are struggling with drug addictions, and there’s even passing reference to the opioid crisis happening nationwide, but the drug problems are more scant characterization than anything thematic. I suppose one could be generous and talk about people being haunted by their past mistakes, enthralled to addiction, and working to become better people in control of their own lives, but that’s a generic plot foundation that any nominal drug addiction movie traffics within. Likewise, the Army vet who is coping with his PTSD through drug addiction seems like it has the potential to make larger statements, but even this aspect of the movie is curiously underplayed. I thought the filmmakers would tie more trauma together with the past and present for Wolf, even indulging in certain triggering sounds or images. I suppose Straitjacket’s title is meant to reference the bind that these characters find themselves in due to drugs and other socioeconomic circumstances (no one literally wears a straitjacket). I just thought the movie would have more to say than drug addiction is rough.

I also think it was a mistake for Wiedenheft to have played Wolf. I don’t know if this decision was born out of necessity of keeping the crew small and moving, not having to contort around another actor’s schedule when the writer/director could just step in, or if this was a part that Wiedenheft really wanted to portray. I assume it’s more the former than the latter. In that case, this might be why Wiedenheft the writer kept things minimal on Wiedenheft the actor. There are a few challenging scenes to play, like drug highs and the lows of desperation, but the performance is much more reactive and kept at a distance. Maybe he’s meant to be more a cypher, a stand-in for countless others struggling with the cost of addiction, but if this was the case I figure more attention and specifics would have been placed thematically.

The acting shortcomings of Wiedenheft are more noticeable when compared to his co-lead. Newberry is a familiar face in the realm of Ohio-made indies (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet, Dark Iris, The Wager) and gets the big emotional moments. Newberry sells the grief and shock with ease. A notable standout is JoAnna Lloyd (Brimstone Saint) as a park ranger. She’s only in the movie for two brief scenes but she leaves a favorable impression as a woman struggling to even compute the tragic events that she is now meant to serve as an authority for. Her loss of words, awkward articulation, and sense of bewilderment trying to comfort another is deftly played.

From a technical standpoint, Straitjacket is marvelous and impressive, and the level of its professional presentation in no way betrays the fact that the movie’s budget was only $15,000. The cinematography is extremely polished and moody, again reminding me of how Sauliner uses his sleek images and compositions to make even unnerving anxiety appear oddly beautiful. There’s a clear and clean visual talent here. I can see how a thriller would be appealing for this artist. When things are on edge and in movement, that’s when Wiedenheft is at his best as a director. It’s when things slow down that we start to see faults with the limited characterization and themes. Still, this is one Ohio-made indie that doesn’t feel like it’s stretching to a breaking point simply to get to a feature-length running time. There feels like even more could have been explored, maybe a third character perspective to open things up even more and examine the long ripples one devastating mistake can have on many lives. It’s tragedy served up as chase movie, but when things slow down that’s when you’ll notice how Straitjacket could have used more knots to tie itself into an even more tantalizing and emotionally grueling film experience.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Entropy (2022)

I was unaware of the horror movie Entropy until the production sought me out to review their movie. It was filmed in Ohio for a minimal budget over the course of six days and nights during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. I think it’s admirable that, as things were shutting down and lives were thrown out of balance, that this small group of filmmakers banded together and made something creative with that unexpected down time. The final ten minutes of credits includes behind the scenes video of the special effects process and it looks like everyone was enjoying themselves with this project to keep their minds off the pandemic. As a finished film, however, Entropy leaves a lot to be desired even as a low-budget, lowered expectations chiller thriller.

Abby (Miranda Nieman) hates her girlfriend Miranda’s (Hayley Sunshine, and what a fabulous name) friends. She used to be part of a self-improvement group that some have labeled a cult. Miranda pressures Abby to come to dinner and meet these people and understand they’re not so bad. Also at this friendly dinner is Scott (Scott Hale), their former leader, who has come back from his time overseas with stories of horror. Is he to be believed? Is he dangerous? And how far out of the pull of this group is Miranda and should Abby begin planning her escape?

While the movie is labeled as that feature-film-qualifying metric of 80 minutes, in reality it’s 70 minutes, and even within that minimal running time there is plenty of padding and dead air. I have found this fault with many of the Ohio indies I’ve seen, and it’s essentially a case of not having enough material to fulfill the demands of a feature length running time. Director/co-writer Kameron Hale and his fellow co-writer, producer, and brother Scott Hale, have made several horror short films, and it’s easy to see how Entropy likely started as a short script that the brothers thought could expand into a larger story. There just isn’t enough material here as presented although it had the potential for further exploration. The idea of finding out your lover is formerly in a cult has some nice juicy character reverberations, which would make anyone second-guess things. The premise of a cult leader returning from his mystical and mysterious sojourn is also rife with potential for a horror movie. From a strict psychological thriller level, over the course of one very disconcerting dinner, he could be re-consolidating power, and Abby could slowly understand the dawning threat that her girlfriend is succumbing to, like an addict plunging once more into the self-destructive behaviors of their past. From a body horror standpoint, you can use the returned guru as the bringer of otherworldly terror. Something supernatural could have hitched a ride and taken over him, and now it wants more flesh. There are ideas that, with careful plotting and characterization, could sustain a feature film. Entropy doesn’t quite do that, so that’s why we get situations like three minutes of sustained driving or three minutes walking through the woods that’s meant to be moody but is really just padding.

The movie’s small budget becomes a handicap at parts but what really harms the movie is the sloppy, clunky manner in how the story establishes its needed points. Characters will often speak in a “Hey, you remember when…?”-style of artificial conversation for the benefit of informing the audience of things they would naturally likely already know. Every movie needs exposition to better orient an audience, but the trick of the writer is to mask it as much as possible. It’s stuff like, “Don’t you guys hate Scott? Wasn’t he in a cult?” and, “I thought you were wrapped up in the medical scene like the rest of them. Cody said he’s seen you at the hospital a lot.” With each of those lines, you can tell where the screenplay wants to go for info, but it’s so clunky and lacking the opportunity to shed light about the character doing the speaking. Writing for characters is not something that automatically improves with a higher budget, so one way a low-budget indie can make its mark is through its writing of people, making them intriguing, memorable, and drawing us in. With a cult of people in pain, there should be potential there. Unfortunately, the characters are kept as walking-talking expository devices. I didn’t even realize Abby had cancer and I think the movie was expecting me to know upfront (the cancer diagnosis is in the plot description supplied by the production). Early on she’s in her bathroom crying, and she refers to “whatever’s growing inside me,” and I thought she was pregnant, which brings its own follow-up questions for a lesbian relationship. It is not until 26 minutes into the movie when the word “cancer” is actually spoken via text: “I have ovarian cancer. I need to go home.” She then texts, “My vagina is literally killing me” twice, and I chuckled (also, a possible misuse of “literally”). Other lines of dialogue I found to be tin-eared yet memorable include, “I’ll go to the party but I won’t go to a pity party,” and, in reference to Abby’s ovarian cancer, “If anyone’s gonna understand what’s going on inside you, it’s gonna be them, and me, if you’d let me,” and, “I was drugging the drinks but not like you think. The drinks were already drugged, and I was drugging them to counteract the drugs,” and my favorite toward the very end, “I don’t know where the fuck this basement came from but I guess it’s part of the house now.”

You can see the better version of this movie, one that strips away much of the exposition-heavy and dawdling first half hour. Rather than being told upfront that Abby is sick, or at least being told with a lack of clarity, let’s let this be a much later revelation. The same with Miranda’s relationship to being in a cult. It would have been more interesting and creepier for Miranda to have withheld this vital background and for Abby to realize over the course of one long awkward dinner. Likewise, the dinner setting could have been a great showcase for Scott to demonstrate his manipulative Svengali tendencies. The dinner could be a reunion of friends Miranda hadn’t seen since college rather than her best friends; best friends, I might add, that have not been told anything about the girl she has been dating for over three months. The fear of thinking you really know someone but they’ve been hiding key parts of themselves, and who they may actually be under the surface, is a universal plight. That way the truth comes out piece by piece and we are placed in Abby’s shoes, the outsider to this gathering and trying to understand. It’s a dynamic that would have played to a low-budget production and put emphasis on the character writing and performances as the night descends into Rosemary’s Baby “who are these people?” territory.

When Entropy does go all-in on its Lovecraftian body horror in the final twenty minutes, it’s certainly a leap ahead in entertainment. The lighting favors lots of indigo and purple, which reminded me of 2020’s Color Out of Space, a surefire artistic influence here. The body horror is gross and slimy and the practical effects, while limited, are designed to be more impressionable and shape-defining, triggering our innate sense that something is very wrong. It’s during this wild stretch that the movie tries to do too much with its remaining time (while still padding things out, of course) and by then it’s too late. The lack of clarity in the writing with the characters at the beginning resurfaces and now we have a lack of clarity about what is happening. While Lovecraftian horror often features imperceptible qualities of terror, the story feels more purposely vague out of convenience than a grand design of the unknowable.

At only 70 minutes of movie length, I can’t say that Entropy is an easy watch. My patience was grinding down with all the tedium and padding. Fans of micro-budget horror movies and especially with a taste for the lurid and wild machinations of body horror could be entertained, though it’s a long wait to get to the gory goods. That protracted setup should establish the characters, their dilemma, and most importantly, our interest in what is happening so that when everything goes crazy that we care about what happens next. The characterization, plotting, and dialogue are disappointing and stilted. The acting is pretty limited all around, and that may be another reason why the script didn’t become a tense chamber piece. I found Hale as the cult leader to be the best actor of the bunch. I credit the filmmakers with striving to make something, working together during such fraught times, and succeeding in getting a level of distribution through the prolific Gravitas Ventures. However, next time, and I hope for the Hale brothers there is a next time, that they work just as hard on creating the core elements that will make people care about what dastardly thing happens next to the people in their story, and maybe get an outside set of eyes to read their script for clarity.

Nate’s Grade: D+

They/Them/Us (2022)

Jon Sherman has been a film professor at Kenyon College in Ohio since 2010. He has sought to build up the Columbus, Ohio film community and has often guest lectured at various film screenings held in central Ohio. Sherman has some personal experience with Hollywood, writing and directing his 1996 breakout indie rom-com Breathing Room (starring Dan Futterman!), and then given an even bigger stage with the 2002 rom-com I’m with Lucy (with Monica Potter!). He may be an academic but that filmmaking itch never really goes away, and so that brings us to another Sherman rom-com, 2022’s They/Them/Us, which is available to be viewed nationally through digital release. It’s a charming, offbeat romance with a sweet sensibility and an unexpected kink.

Charlie (Joey Slotnick) is a middle-aged man starting his life over. He’s re-entered the dating scene after a recent divorce, he splits custody of his two teenage children with their mother, and the only job he could find as a film professor is at a conservative Christian university. Lisa (Amy Hargreaves) is a woman in her forties, a successful artist with full custody of her two children, one of whom has recently identified as non-binary (preferring “they/them” pronouns, hence the title). They meet online, have their first date, and are immediately smitten, enough so that Lisa bends her rules about not getting too attached too soon. Charlie and Lisa decide to combine their clans into one modern blended family, and the reunification is a messy and awkward process.

Given Sherman’s background as a film professor, you would hope that if anyone, when given the opportunity to make a feature film, could rise to the occasion, it should be somebody whose career rests upon the analysis of what makes movies work best. They/Them/Us succeeds as a relatively light-hearted rom-com and family drama with several nice moments. It’s hard to quantify, but you know better writing when you witness it, how characters interact and how witty the exchanges are and how much characterization they impart. Typically, a lesser writer will overstay their welcome or begin a scene before the importance. This can also be done to add unique character details, but often it’s a writer not knowing when to start and when to leave, a trait I’ve experienced so many times with Ohio-made indies. With Sherman’s scene writing, everything is to the point and moving, imparting the most important info or character detail, then chugging along. Early on, we establish Charlie as a man struggling to parent two surly teenagers and find someone special online. The fact that in the opening seconds he seems to be messaging two women who have BDSM kinks in their profile should be telling. After Charlie admonishes Danny for smoking pot in his house, he snatches the kid’s bong and runs upstairs, pacing and unsure of what to do next as his breathing calms and he focuses his attention to the bong in hand. Cut to Charlie smoking the bong to relax. It’s a quick, smart detail that demonstrates Charlie’s uncertainty on how to be the stable authority figure with his own dismissive children.

They/Them/Us is also a charming and sex positive romance between two middle-aged divorcees, a subject that rarely gets such big screen attention. The movie touches upon the challenges of modern dating when you’re not just dating a single individual but a person with attachments, about starting over later and finding a new life that will make appropriate space for you. Selecting a common dinner option can be its own minefield. It’s a perspective worthy of more attention by Hollywood. Beyond that angle, the movie is also surprisingly kinky for a “family comedy.” While unrated, They/Them/Us still exists in a more PG-13-friendly universe so it’s rather gentle when it explores the BDSM urges of Lisa. The movie is refreshingly free of judgements though has more than a few grand jokes drawn from Charlie’s squeamishness. He tries to throw himself into a more aggressive role, and Lisa asks him to pull her hair harder, and he says, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m a feminist.” I laughed out loud at that one. Another time, Charlie is attempting to spank Lisa and he keeps hesitating, finally admitting that it keeps bringing up unwanted and uncomfortable memories of spanking his unruly son as a child, something he still feels guilty over. In time, Charlie seeks out advice and instruction on how to be a better BDSM participant, and his educational process is a bit obvious, with more than a few easy gags (no pun intended), but it’s still one borne from a desire to better understand and fulfill his partner. It’s a sweet romance.

Slotnick (Twister, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) has been a staple of TV and movies for decades, a reliable “that guy” with overly neurotic tendencies. He’s a terrific put-upon dad and his age has only added more authenticity to Charlie’s harried struggle. He’s got a warmth to him that is easily conveyed during his brighter, kinder moments, and he’s also got a wellspring of awkward, cringe-inducing comedy as a middle-aged dad trying too hard to connect with a brood of teenagers and often flailing. When he’s genuinely happy, Slotnick genuinely wins you over. I think the vague details about Charlie’s dismissal from his previous professor job are a mistake. We’re told by his ex-wife, who inexplicably is still trying to get him back for the sake of the children, that a coed sent Charlie inappropriate texts. That topic is way too big not to clarify, and it’s also strange that Sherman and co-writer and partner Melissa Vogley Woods never come back to this as a conflict with his new relationship. It also seems like a natural point of conflict for keeping his new position at the Christian college and yet it’s glossed over (the resolution over that is laughably too tidy and convenient but keeping with the low stakes).

Hargreaves (13 Reasons Why, Homeland) is very enjoyable as the more experienced and confident half of this blended relationship. Lisa knows what she likes and is not ashamed, and she’s patient with Charlie as he attempts to reach her on her level. Hargreaves has a fun spirit to her that doesn’t veer into exploitation. It would be easy for Sherman to just write her as a fetish object for Charlie, but Lisa comes across as a real woman with her own desires and doubts and questions. There’s a scene where Lisa and Charlie are talking after their less-than-stellar first date with the combined family unit, and Lisa’s children are impatiently waiting by the locked car. “Come one, mom,” they whine. “You have the keys.” In mid-sentence, Hargreaves just hurls the car keys to her children and then continues her conversation with Charlie without missing a beat. It’s a defiant, petulant, lovely moment that keys the audience into her devotion to Charlie and her own character. I adored it.

Lexie Bean, as Maddie, and Jack Steiner as Danny, are both acting breakthroughs. Both of the actors are so natural and with a great poise and presence. Steiner has minimal acting experience but could easily headline a movie with the sly charisma and comic timing he displays. He even finds a way to enliven one of the least funny segments in comedies, the drug trip. Bean has notable, obvious talent that I regret that They/Them/Us doesn’t draw more upon.

There is one significant critique I do have with They/Them/Us and that’s that this all feels like a far better fit for a television series than as a single film. Rare do I come across a story engine that seems like it has the output to keep going, but that’s what we have here. There are three significant storylines that all would have benefited with far more time and development that a wider field of narrative writing would afford: 1) at its core, this is a story about a blended family and all the troubles and revelations and connections that come from two established families suddenly sharing spaces and lives, 2) Charlie working at a conservative Christian university and having to awkwardly pose as devout while hiding his true feelings, and 3) it’s a BDSM rom-com.

Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how those storylines could form the backbone of a series-long narrative. Charlie’s facade at work could get more and more complex to carry on, and as his secret gets discovered, more desperate. He could also experiment more with wanting to become sexually adventurous for his partner. There could even be the question over whether he was having an affair when he was really just getting one-on-one instruction with a helpful dominatrix to educate himself. That might sound like a generic sitcom contrivance, but the script makes plenty of these kinds of conflicts and too-easy resolutions. When Maddie refuses to eat, Charlie sits with them, and within literal seconds Maddie is confessing a teacher is deliberately misgendering them and it hurts. Charlie’s solution is to get donuts, and it’s during his exchange with the drive-thru intercom that he makes a heartfelt stand about Maddie being non-binary and preferred pronouns, and then it’s like we’ve wrapped up that conflict in a bow. It’s so absurdly quick, and these characters have not had a conversation together before this, that we’ve seen, so its resolution feels so abrupt as to be arbitrary. That’s where a TV series would allow these characters and their inter-family drama to really take shape. An entire episode could be devoted to Charlie trying, and awkwardly failing, to bond with Maddie, finding a small triumph at the end that would feel better earned. This goes especially in the last twenty minutes when Danny’s drug problems get way too serious for the film’s tone. For most of its running time, They/Them/Her has such a low-stakes sense about all of its family drama, keeping things light and loose. It can’t quite make that leap to melodrama that encapsulates the end of the movie, a transition that doesn’t feel properly established.

When you’re dealing with human relationships, and with the battleground that a blended family would present, then squeezing everything into a measly 90 minutes feels like a disservice. At one point, Charlie and Lisa ask if they’re rushing things, going too fast, and they agree to move in together at the twenty-minute mark, but it’s almost like an admission to the audience about the movie. Everything is moving just too fast. We need the time to slow down, to really luxuriate in the awkwardness and unexpected connections, and the kind of narrative berths where each character can feel more fleshed out and less defined by a single note of distinction (the Non-Binary child, the Drug Problem child, the Sarcastic child, the Blame Shifter, etc.). I still enjoyed these characters and their interactions, but I would have enjoyed them even more with a larger scope to appreciate the depth and eccentricities of each person.

They/Them/Us is a rather wholesome movie that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to its audience, judging its characters punitively, or overly sugar-coating their personal dilemmas. It’s not a particularly challenging movie but Sherman and his cohorts know what kind of movie they want to make. It’s technically proficient, assuredly low-budget but still professional in presentation. I often enjoyed the musical score by David Carbonara (Mad Men – what a get this guy was). While some subplots and conflicts are so swiftly and conveniently handled, the core of this charming movie remains its fractious, funny, and all too human relationships. When my biggest complaint stems from wanting more, more of these people, more of their adjustments and misunderstandings and triumphs, and more comic possibilities from a larger time frame of stories, then you’ve done something right with your 90 minutes of movie and clearly not everyone can accomplish even that.

Nate’s Grade: B

Youngstown (2021)

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.

Director/editor/co-writer Pete Ohs on location.

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+

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