As I’ve been looking into more Ohio independent films to highlight and review, I had several in local filmmaking circles recommend me the 2010 drama Minus One (currently available on Amazon Prime). It’s a war drama filmed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an example of what can be done when indie filmmaking accentuates the most important parts of storytelling, ones that do not require Hollywood budgets. It’s a heartfelt drama and one that is easy to plug right into.
A trio of National Reserve soldiers have been given the call that they are to report for duty. In three days, they will be transported overseas and onto a base in Iraq. David (Jon Osbeck) is a career veteran and in charge of rounding up the other guys in town. James (Roger Bailey) is a 30-something veteran still trying to build a family. Robert (Remy Brommer) is a young student whose days were about playing video games with his pals and sneaking time in with his girlfriend. The three men try and put their lives in order before they leave and face the possibility of not returning.
Minus One is the kind of meaty drama that can be done on a shoestring budget, which makes it a smart play for indie filmmakers because the drama and characters are what sustain it. There’s something immediate and engaging about a group of men spending their last few days before shipping out. It’s a situation that feels like grieving, the uncertainty and anxiety hanging on everyone’s faces. Will this person ever return home to me? Will things ever be the same? It’s a premise that forces confrontations and that naturally leads to drama and catharsis. The trio of characters all have personal relationships that will need to be touched upon before their departures, although James really gets the short end dramatically. He’s scared about going back for another tour but his wife is supportive and loving and they’ll see it through. James seems to serve more as a contrasting data point in between the character chart, the middle ground between the novice (Robert) and the strong-but-silent veteran (David). The situation demands introspection, reflection, and the conflict of action versus inaction. Will you make amends while able? Will you continue to drift away from those who were at one time so crucial? Will you take ownership over your own faults and the pain you may have caused others? By starting at this point, each scene becomes a learning opportunity for the viewer, trying to deduce connections between established characters and new supporting faces, as well as getting a fuller sense of their daily lives through habits and breaks from routine. Not every scene does this, and there are some scenes that just restate the same learned info, but as a whole Minus One is a well-constructed drama that puts the emphasis on character and conflict and patience. It takes its time to fill in the blanks.
Each character is taking stock of their life and what this moment means, but they’re also taking stock of how it affects the people around them in their lives. Robert being called into service effectively ends his relationship with his girlfriend, and the both of them know it during a party. His mind is preoccupied and she gets up to leave, remarking she has an exam in the morning. You can tell Robert is a little hurt by this reality, wanting to soak up the time they have remaining before he’s gone, and then accepts that reality, that he’s already gone. She says goodbye, hugs him, and they hold onto one another, and what’s unsaid seems to be understood by both parties. This is more than a nightly goodbye. They both know it’s the end and must move on. David is also trying to make right with his ex-wife and little daughter, trying to fix one small thing, one achievable act of kindness, one point that can be fondly remembered, by fixing the broken front porch swing. As his ex-wife relays, David has been a family man in name more than deed, failing to fulfill promises and being present for his loved ones. The duties of the job took their toll. This is a small town and losing three of its own to the war effort will have repercussions. Especially during trying times, it’s clear that our lives and actions can extend far beyond us.
Osbeck (Dark Waters, The Public) has the most challenging role given that he is the most hardened to the call of duty. He delivers a finely textured and weathered performance with enough glints to hint at reserved pools of emotion, from regret with his ex-wife and a lingering ember of hope, to resigned acceptance and gratitude to the many familiar faces in town. Watch the guy talk to his daughter and try not to get a sense of how good Osbeck is at bringing this character to life. His isn’t a showy performance and often underplays the scenes, which feels more appropriate for the role. Bailey and Brommer (Speak) do fine jobs especially when they’re pitted against each other. Both men are fearful but dealing with it in different manners, which puts them at odds. Robert is ignoring the certainty and changes, trying to parrot the Army’s slogans and racist terminology for the enemy overseas as a means of covering up for his gnawing fear. He’s gung-ho for war, and this greatly irritates James, who knows better than to blithely celebrate war as if it was glamorous. I wish their blowup could have gone on longer and cracked both characters open even further.
Other acting standouts include Jennifer Schaaf (Heather’s Painting) as David’s ex-wife who is trying to navigate her complicated feelings of sympathy and personal boundaries, Jane Mowder (The Street Where We Live) as Robert’s mom, especially during the scene where she has to process the news her son is shipping out, Misti Patrella (Classholes) as the grieving widow who has turned to the bottle and has a shared history with David, and the irreplaceable Ralph Scott (Bong of the Living Dead) as the small-town police chief who provides a much-needed wry sense of levity. He has such a natural way of inhabiting a character. Scott is so prevalent in Ohio-produced indie filmmaking that I assume if he’s not in the film he must have been holding the camera somewhere.
There is one significant misstep for the movie and it literally comes in the closing minute. I’ll dance around spoilers to keep things kosher. The film ends as you would expect with our trio being driven out of town and heading to the airport for their international travel (this should not be a spoiler). We’re then treated to post-script text informing us what happened to the three soldiers once they reached Iraq. Firstly, it’s not necessary to give resolution when so much of the story exists in the uncertainty of what will happen next. It feels like ending 12 Angry Men with a post-script that said, “Oh, the kid was really guilty the whole time.” It goes against the thematic emphasis of the preceding story. We don’t need a resolution because these men are representative of the United States soldier as a whole, so it’s better left open-ended. The other drawback is that this post-script covers some pretty major dramatic changes, and to do so in a handful of words in the close is inherently anticlimactic and unsatisfying and a bit clunky. If this was going to be the conclusion to certain characters, then learning about it this manner was not the right choice. Better to have kept things ambiguous and open-ended than serve up developments this way.
This impulse also surfaces during one of the movie’s most dramatic points, a nearly six-minute monologue by David about his time overseas and a checkpoint that went badly. We begin the moment on Osbeck’s face recounting the painful memory, and then the movie haphazardly cuts back into flashback of the event as narrated. This decision seems like a reasonable one, visualizing the traumatic experience, but it takes away from the moment. It interrupts the focus on Osbeck’s performance where the viewer is studying him for the slightest changes. It’s a strong monologue and the emphasis should be on Osbeck’s face alone. Another reason why this choice doesn’t work is the reality of doubling the Middle East in Columbus, Ohio. This requires a stylistic choice that amounts to “ghost trails” in editing software (think “drunk vision”). It’s being used to signify the past but it’s also being used to cover up the environmental differences. Even with this effect, the forest of the checkpoint still stands out as incongruous. I do think a flashback could have strengthened this moment but it needed to be very judicious. The point of the monologue isn’t how he and his friend got into trouble, it’s about his friend’s sacrifice he blames himself over, which means the emphasis needs to be on his friend. David describes seeing his expression in that final moment, an understanding of his inevitable demise, and that is exactly what should have been the flashback focus. All you needed was a closeup of the man’s face, fixed, emoting every damn thing he can before a flash wipes away the memory. That way the emphasis is on the performance and gets rid of production replication shortfalls.
Minus One is a fairly simple story told in a straight-forward manner. The emphasis is on the relatable characters, the simmering conflicts and the personal revelations of each coming to terms with how their lives will be changing, and the uncertainty that they must come to terms with. This is a story that has been told before, both in film and simply a lived experience of millions, and it will continue to be told afterwards because, at its core, it’s a universal story. It’s saying goodbye to a loved one and coming to terms with responsibility and sacrifice. Yet, Osbeck, serving as writer and co-director with Marc Wiskemann (Holding Patterns), doesn’t rest on making these men symbols (admittedly some of the three have more depth than others). It does no disservice to say Minus One feels like a competent made-for-TV movie; from a technical standpoint, the visual compositions and shots are very standard, placing the focus on the actors and giving them space, and material, to deliver, and they generally do. It’s a small movie about big things and I enjoyed the little touches that better rounded out the world, like David revealing, with a delightful smirk, the secret to how he always gets the daily trivia question correct at his local coffee shop. It’s those small touches that give Minus One a personality. I disagree with the very ending and how it impacts the overall resonance of the movie but it doesn’t sabotage the whole experience. Minus One is a somber, reflective, and touching little homespun drama with plenty of sincerity and heart to spare.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.
We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.
The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.
Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.
The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.
Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.
If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.
The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.
Nate’s Grade: B
Filmed throughout central and southern Ohio, After is the passion project of special effects wizard Ben Brown who wrote and directed it (and, yes, did the special effects). Many brilliant people lent their time and talents behind and in front of the camera, and I once again must confess to personally knowing several of them. I’m trying to keep my biases at bay through this review but acknowledge that may be impossible. Still, After is a pretty, heartfelt movie about Big Things that has some structural miscues and plot padding that left me from fully dubbing this an unqualified indie success.
Charles Galloway (Lee Slewman) lies dying in an alley having being fatally stabbed by a mugger. He reflects back on his life as a younger man (Dan Nye) and the people who shaped his experiences, notably Marie Granger (Tifani Ahren Davis), a free-spirited artist who captured his heart and then left it in tatters. Also, Clare (Carolyn Schultz) is an EMT worker who is having a hard time living with the rigors of her job. She’s haunted by the people she could not save and turned to drinking to self-medicate. She tries to get her life back on track by putting herself out there and discovering more of who she is.
After is a movie I would not be primed to enjoy that much based upon my own artistic tastes, namely a very earnest ode to the deeply felt, prosaic works of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). With that in mind, if you are a lover of Malick’s divisive films (I’m not a fan) then I think you’ll find a recognizable artistic ambition worth celebrating in After. Being loosely plotted means much is meant to be felt through the experience, the combination of the images building off the next, a tone poem of contemplation. It follows a dream logic and either you can immerse yourself in the overall experience or you’ll be left waiting. The very Malick-styled cinematography by Gil Whitney (The Street Where We Live) makes the colors look lush, the outdoors inviting, and the spaces around characters cavernous to communicate distances and isolation. The special effect sequences present arresting visuals exploring Charles’ mind fraying. There was one shot where Clare woke up from post-sex activities and her hair is magnificently arranged. It’s a little detail but it did not go unnoticed, and that kind of doting care is evident in many of the shot compositions and dreamy visual aesthetics. There’s a gorgeous shot over a cityscape of Cincinnati that evokes a romantic mood worthy of cinema. This is a nice looking movie and the actors are putting in strong uniform efforts. It’s a man’s life uncovered as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, and putting the pieces together is part of the fun. Adult Charles has to learn about responsibilities, what it means to be a man, and the consequences of letting others in, of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and having your heart broken. If I had to surmise a theme I would say it’s about the unexpected detours and unintended consequences of life, the longer effects of our choices bringing opportunity even in our many failures on this Earth.
After is so sincere and radiating with big emotions that I felt rotten for not being moved more. It’s a pleasant film that wears its mighty heart on its sleeve, has strong visuals and technical attributes, and skilled actors, so why was I thwarted from being more engaged? After some time and searching, I think it has to do with the underdeveloped plot structure and with a character that is given undue attention.
I started questioning whose movie this was with the divided focus, and Clare was not justifying her presence and the time spent with her. It’s almost like they’re co-leads that the film keeps cutting back and forth with; however, you keep waiting for her larger relevance to make itself known. Because why would the life of the EMT on the scene after the death of the supposed protagonist be worth this much attention? So we keep waiting for something more to be revealed but the character is unfortunately too underdeveloped, formed from customary cues of people suffering from Heavy Life Things (alcoholism, depression, poor social interaction, haunted by the ones she cannot save). She’s established early as being something of a zombie sleepwalking through life but this characterization is more stopping point than starting point. Even when she starts an awkward romance with a police officer we’re waiting for movement, change, some new insight into the character, and when that doesn’t arrive the question becomes even more pertinent over why exactly this character is absorbing so much precious screen time.
The non-linear narrative structure has some elegant visual symbolism but also feels somewhat underutilized. The framing device is Charles lying mortally wounded in a dirty alley, his life flashing before his eyes, reviewing the Big Moments. This is also mixed in with Clare, who conflicts with the framing device until the very end of the film reveals how these specific pieces snap together. I think if this story had been told chronologically it would be more obvious how the eventual purpose of our depressed and haunted EMT was mostly for the impact of the eventual reveal. It’s masking the reality that she’s more a plot device than a person, a lesson to be learned. If a character is given the second most screen time and is mostly here as a reflection or foil to the lead then it’s hard for them to stand on their own. Because of all of this, whenever the film kept coming back to Clare and her life I felt like it was intruding on more interesting plotlines.
I was hoping the film would take the bones of its story and put them to more use. A dash of something a little high-concept could have juiced the appeal and mystery, like a simple time travel element that provides even more stakes for an out-of-time man looking back over his confusing life. That opens more narrative possibilities for the ages of the Charles character at various points in his life, plus it would also naturally start to bleed memories into one another, allowing the repetition to provide more intriguing insight. Speaking of bleeding memories, I thought what if the framing device remains and it’s almost an Eternal Sunshine-style internal recount of one man’s life. Charles could literally be retreating into the safe confines of his old memories, chased by the hooded mugger who represents Death. Finally, rather than running away, he confronts the mugger and accepts his fate, accepts passing away, and cherishes the life he’s had. Or if you wanted something more conventional, then explore the unexpected relationship with the young fan (Tisha Michele Hanley) who is the only person to appear at Charles’ latest book signing, an unexpected older/younger friendship that could inform both of them. After is a concept with possibility but it feels more a corralling of various story elements than a fully formed story.
The acting is relatively strong throughout the production, able to sell those big feelings pulsating out like ripples. The three Charles Jr.’s all perform ably. The youngest, Trevor Bush, only has one scene but makes his character felt. It’s inaccurate to say all Sleeman (Those Who Kill) does is spend half the movie lying on his back. Much of his performance is inherently nonverbal through alternating awed and fearful expressions, and Sleeman communicates the years of regret and joy with aplomb. He has a wry sense of hard-won wisdom to him. Nye (Harvest Lake) shows quite a bit of range as the adult version of Charles, going big during key dramatic moments and very insular during the fallout. Nye’s at his best when he’s with his best scene partner, Bridgette Kreuz (Perennial) as his “little sister” Colleen. The two have a very easy chemistry to them that sells their sibling bond. Kreuz reminded me of Portia Doubleday from Mr. Robot, a strong woman peeking out behind a deceptively gentle exterior. Kreuz can communicate so much through her tremulous eyes. The older “little sister” (big little sister? Old little sister?) played by Heather Caldwell (The Turn Out) is given much of the exposition being a therapist tying together the two main characters. She covers the exposition hurdles with grace. The two biggest female roles are enhanced from the talents of the actresses imbuing what is absent from the page. Schultz (Prism) is suitably harried and unsure of herself as Clare, and Davis (Clever Girl) is suitably charming without slipping into full Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode as Marie Granger. The movie rightfully treats Davis as an ethereal spirit worth remembering for the rest of one’s life on this Earth.
I want to single out a few supporting actors who do incredible feats with less. Ralph Scott (Stitches) is a blessing. The man is capable of communicating such emotion with subtlety, which is why his few scenes registered so much for me. He’s coaching his son, Charles Jr., on a very mournful day. His son asks why his father isn’t sad, and in the subtleties of facial glimpses, Scott shows you the sadness he’s keeping at bay, the pained recognition, and then the character must move onward, for his sake and his son’s. It’s the performance that does the most with the smallest amount in the movie. Also of striking note is Hanley (Bong of the Living Dead) as the awkward and adoring fan at the bookshop. Her performance is so natural, stripped of any overt actorly artifices, and the character seems pleasant and hopeful, that I wanted more scenes with her and her character. Hanley left such an impression that I was rewriting the story in my head to get her more involved.
After is a movie that wants to make people think and feel, and for many it will have this desired effect. It’s powerfully earnest and well-intended, a loving recreation of the Terrence Malick spiritual aesthetic of art and reality, and a movie with important things to say. The underdeveloped story occasionally gets sucked up into the power of the visuals, though I believe much is meant to be communicated from the poetic imagery. It’s a conscious choice that I don’t think helps the greater story and characters but that’s also because Terrence Malick’s ponderous poetic interludes are not my kind of movies. While I don’t feel like the finished film is the best version of its own story, the completed movie showcases the hard work and sincerity of many artists. After is an tribute to the burgeoning film scene in Columbus, Ohio and its many talents. Look for it with festivals in the future.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I’m in a movie. That’s a pretty vain opening sentence but I wanted to get it out of the way. I was one of the very fortunate horror fans to attend the Nightmares Film Festival, which in two short years has already vaulted to being one of the top film festivals in the nation. I came to see the premiere of Bong of the Living Dead, a stoner zombie comedy that filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in 2013 (oh what a simpler time). I had the good fortune to be a zombie extra, and wouldn’t you know, my shambling, bloody, stupid self made the final cut. I mention this not out of braggadocio but out of a desire for transparency. I am friends with many of the people in front of and behind the camera on this movie. I have personal connections to the production, Backwards Slate, and I’ve worked with several of the actors on other projects and plan to work with them again. I am going to write the most objective review I can for the film, as you would expect of me dear reader, but you should know of my potential personal biases. I was really dreading writing a review if the movie sucked. Happily, Bong of the Living Dead is still an enjoyably fun comedy even if you regrettably don’t happen to know anyone involved.
The zombie apocalypse is coming to Clintonville, Ohio, and our group of stoner friends has been waiting their entire lives for this moment. Childhood friends Hal Rockwood (Dan Alan Kiely), Christ Moser (Eric Boso), Tara Callahan (Laura E. Mock), and Jon Lance (Dan Nye) spend most of their time smoking pot and pontificating on the minutia of zombie pop culture. Christ is trying to hook up with a spacey new girl, Danielle DeWitt (Cat Taylor), and Tara and Jon seem to have something unspoken between them. Dr. Kate Mitchell (Tiffany Arnold) has been hearing strange cases of an infection passed through biting. Sure enough, the dead rise up and feast on the flesh of the living, and our stoners barricade themselves inside their house and gear up for the onslaught to come.
This feels like it was plucked out of the 90s, and I do not mean that as a criticism at all. It feels like the kind of movie Kevin Smith would have made in his geeky prime (a mischievous recitation of randy porn titles seems wholly inspired from Smith). The core idea allows genre satire as well as genre self-indulgence: what if a group of pop-culture savvy potheads became embroiled in the zombie apocalypse? They speak in rapid-fire, hyper-verbal references because that’s how they process the world, as one long catalogue of pop-culture footnotes and influences. These characters are downright giddy with the prospect of finally getting to live within the realm of some of their favorite horror cinema, plus the added bonus of violence without a wider set of consequences. They get to be the stars of their own movie now. Except, to the credit of writers Tim Mayo and Max Groah, they don’t even know that they’re still the bit players. They oversleep a zombie cleanup mission and wake up late into the morning to discover much of their neighbors having already taken care of the task (one of them makes the entrepreneurial step of starting a zombie-aided car wash). Hal can’t hide his disappointment: “The whole point of the zombie apocalypse is that there’s not supposed to be any people around.” The apocalypse isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and so the characters retreat and sulk, their knowledge of pop-culture raising their expectations to a level that could not be fulfilled.
It’s this clever undercutting of genre expectations where Bong of the Living Dead breaks from the mold of other zombie comedies. These characters are obsessively aware of zombie lore, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of the audience will have a loving knowledge base as well. They quickly accept their world-ending situation and it barely fazes them, perhaps still too inured by the inoculating effect of comparing it to the movies. It keeps the reality of the horror at a safe distance. Even while boarding up windows they can’t help but argue the merits of fast zombies versus slow zombies. A character makes a meta reference to breaking out a weapon that has never before been mentioned, and it was a big gut-busting laugh. Another clever undercutting is when the film transforms into more of a drama in the last act. I don’t know if enough has been established to make the leap from the Act One cartoon versions of the characters to the Act Three dramatic versions, but it was an interesting and unexpected development.
There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies this dramatic pivot best while still undercutting the genre expectations (some spoilers). After all the close calls and zombie bashing, a character collapses and convulses not from having been bitten but simply from an ordinary and common medical emergency. The other characters are helpless and we watch the fear permeate the scene as everyone comes to the awful realization that this person is going to die from and there’s nothing that can be done. The panic in people’s eyes is genuine. This moment is without setup but I think it works better that way, placing the audience in the same confused and helpless position as the other characters. Groah, as director, gives the scene its necessary breathing room. In this world people can still die in ordinary, everyday ways, and death is not something that’s cool and distant. It’s terrifyingly real.
The loose, genial vibe of the overall production seeps into the script as well, especially during the lackadaisical second act that involves a lot of our characters just sitting around. Bong is a movie that finds time for little comic arias that other movies would blithely skip over. The loose feel allows the movie to find extra weirdness. There’s an ongoing run of silly media satire that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s social commentary. There’s a glib news anchor (Ralph Scott) trying to make the most of the dour news cycles, an opportunistic politician (Vidas Bardzukas) already promising to protect his constituency, a spookily spastic exercise host, a Spanish shopping channel host making love to the camera with his eyes, and a series of cheesy barbarian movies called Swords and Bitches with an evil whip-wielding arachnid queen (Brianne Jeanette). Bong of the Living Dead is chock full of little comical asides that you wouldn’t expect to be so good.
Though it’s also during the second act that I wish more had been going on. I wanted more examination on the difference between their perception of a zombie apocalypse and the reality they’re stuck with. I wanted a bit more setup for the payoffs, like maybe revealing that smoking pot slows down the zombie virus, etc. I wanted more of the VHS-quality flashbacks with the perfectly cast younger versions of the main gang. There aren’t as many central plot elements to make the bridge from start to finish. For much of the middle period, our characters kind of just sit around. They hang out, debate cereal superiority, and even go to the last remaining video store on Earth. It feels a bit like the movie is stuck in neutral, which might have also been the point to communicate the characters’ general malaise. I understand the absurdity of asking for more plot in a stoner comedy but this isn’t any ordinary stoner comedy, as its dovetail into heavy drama indicates. The first act is a lot of fun, the third act is effectively dramatic, but I wanted a bit more connective tissue. The characters could have been better developed (what exactly do they do when not smoking?) but I still cared when things got serious.
The performances across the board are good to great, with every actor, no matter how small the part, finding their specific comedic lane to work within. The biggest breakout performer is definitely Kiely (Axe Giant, Horrors of War) who is, to put it in a topical and never-to-be-dated analogy, the Tiffany Haddish of this particular Girls Trip. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep you entertained. Hal is the character that gets the most excited about the zombie apocalypse. The other characters are interesting but fairly subdued for the most part, as one would expect prolific stoners to behave. When Hal first sees a confirmed zombie, his wide-eyed expression is like a child on Christmas morning, and it’s the biggest applause moment for the film. Kiely is a live wire of energy that jolts every scene he’s in. His eyes speak a devilish madness. He reminded me of Jason Lee’s raucous debut in Mallrats, a full force that sweeps you away. After watching Bong of the Living Dead, you’ll wish every movie had a Dan Kiely in it.
The rest of the ensemble find their moments, giving all the other moments to Kiely and his glorious beard. Arnold (Born Again, Seven Hells) is playing the most straight-laced of all the characters, a doctor trying to make sense of the irrational. Arnold has an instant screen presence and poise that causes you to sit up and pay attention. Her softer moments shared with Hal also help provide a nice antidote for the no-nonsense doctor. As much as Kiely is the draw of our attention, it’s Arnold that is often the one who grounds the picture. Boso (Underground 35) relentlessly pushes his character outside the box of socially awkward outcast. There’s a heaviness he feels from the consequences of getting close to others, and he doesn’t know fully how to deal with his frustrations with himself and the apocalypse, so he embraces his darker, nihilistic impulses. Boso is such a memorable film presence that it feels like he stepped off the set of a Richard Linklater film. Cat Taylor has a charming sense of daffy innocence to her. You can’t tell whether she’s dazed, cheerful, or not altogether there, and it fits very well for her character joining the group. She reminded me of Hannah Murray from the BBC’s Skins series. Nye (Harvest Lake, Dark Iris) is movie star handsome and has some sharp moments of comic aloofness. The romantic undercurrent he shares with Mock (The Tribunal) allows both of them something at stake that the audience can invest in. Nye and Mock have good heated exchanges that wake up the audience and allow each actor to effectively broaden their character range.
And then there are the little performances that make the most of their abbreviated screen time, like Ralph Scott’s (Stitches) wonderful clench-jawed bravado, Bardukas’ (The New Mr. Phillips) hilarious loose-elbow springiness in front of a green screen, Bill Koruna’s (The Shoes) crotchety neighbor, Ben Brown (After) as a powerfully self-loathing jock jerk who is wonderful fun to hate, Sarah Starr as a ditzy and easily bored sex object prone to gratuitous nudity, and the entire team inside the Conan-esque barbarian videos are a hoot for how committed they are to being silly. Just thinking about the Spanish home shopping host and his faces makes me smile and giggle to myself.
Bong of the Living Dead is a shaggy, scrappy, loose and lively zombie comedy with a charm all its own. It’s reliably fun and finds hidden gems of comedy from its deep supporting cast of oddballs. The main characters do fine work pushing at the boundaries of their stock archetypes, with Kiely as the wild man standout. There’s a definite love for the material here, over zombies and dumb comedies and the bonds of friendship. It’s evident in the care taken to creating a movie that doesn’t seem like it was churned out of a Hollywood assembly line, or something calculatingly checking the genre boxes (though the nudity does seem to linger a bit long…). Not everything always works but it’s a movie that tries a multitude of options. Bong of the Living Dead zigs instead of zags, undercutting the characters and our own expectations, finding ways to surprise as well as elate, and that includes going all-in on drama toward the end. It’s a silly movie that just might make you feel something by the time the credits roll. I don’t know what the release plans are for this homegrown horror flick, so stay alert for it on the horizon. Toke up, Backwards Slate Productions. You’ve earned it.
Nate’s Grade: B