One of the perennial conflicts of being an amateur film critic (who’s mostly doing this for the love of the game) is champing at the bit to head down to Sundance or SXSW, but having neither the time nor the money to actually make it work. Luckily enough for me, Chicago’s a great film town with an awesome cadre of professional critics, and so the 3rd Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival was another choice opportunity to check out some interesting films before they head to wider release/on-demand/unplayed Netflix queues nationwide. I was only able to go for two days (Saturday, and a double feature on closing night), but here’s my rundown of the few films I managed to see:
Andrew Bujalski is a bit of a household name in the mumblecore scene, with purposefully aimless films like Computer Chess focusing on conversational understatement and evoking a homespun, improvisational mood. Results is by far is most streamlined, commercial effort, using real actors (Guy Peace, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan) instead of just his friends, and a more scripted approach to his storytelling (as in, he wrote a script this time). To barrel through an unavoidable pun, the results are shockingly underwhelming.
Illustrating the unconventional, laidback friendship-cum-love-triangle between an ambitious fitness guru (Pearce), his emotionally damaged employee/trainer/friend with benefits (Smulders) and an incidentally-wealthy schlubby loner looking for friends and purpose (Corrigan), Results shows sparks of the kind of organic relationship-building he’s known for in his previous work. The movie, like most of his others, are structured around characters just sitting around and getting to know one another, as we learn more about them – the semi-improvisational feel of the scenes is still very Bujalski, even if it feels a bit more writerly in moments. Still, as refreshing as these moments are, one can’t help but feel Bujalski trying way too hard to evade every sort of genre trope of the rom-com – a self-conscious move that detracts more than it helps. Just as the characters flounder around, trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Bujalski seems to do the same. “I can’t let Guy Pearce be the douchey jerk who beats up the schlub who threatens to take away his girl,” says Bujalski. “I know! He’ll just get along fine with Corrigan, smoke weed with him and say relationships are complicated.”
That exchange sounds glib, and I appreciated Pearce’s earnest humility and patience (as with the other performances, all of which were stellar). Still, it feels like Bujalski fighting against the natural instincts of the genre to make something too deliberately against the grain. In trying to subvert the rom-com’s normal beats, he forgot to replace them with something else, making Results a curiosity with some charming performances rather than something fully cohesive.
Verdict: Worth a Watch
The Overnight (2015)
Now on to a relationship comedy much more deliberate, and rewarding because of it: Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, starring Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as an insecure couple, newly moved to California, who attend an impromptu dinner party hosted by their continental new neighbors (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche). As the seemingly-innocent night draws on, and social niceties give way to latent sexual tensions, Brice deftly manages to mix smartly-played dick ‘n butt jokes (Hint: the poster makes so much more sense after seeing the film) with an indirectly poignant exploration of adult relationships.
In many ways, The Overnight mirrors The One I Love in being about dissatisfied couples seemingly dealing with the idealized versions of themselves (it doesn’t hurt that both couples look vaguely similar – a lanky white guy with brown hair and a stick-thin California blonde). At the heart of it all is trying to figure out what makes relationship and marriages still work in your 30s – the realities of kids, finances, and the sheer numbing effect of time on love and sex is something that the film explores with hilarious aplomb. Brice gives the proceedings a wonderful veneer of tension, with a very Duplass-y handheld indie approach that doesn’t offer a lot of visual flair (except in a few key moments of stylization), but which keeps the focus laser-centered on the characters’ antics. On top of all this, though, it’s just funny as hell – Scott’s Ben Wyatt-esque earnest anxiety and Schwartzman’s charmingly giving yuppie douchebaggery are a match made in comedic heaven.
Verdict: Loved It!
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
This was apparently the big hit at Sundance, and I can see why: this tale of a self-aware teenage outsider film buff who keeps the world at arm’s length by cultivating his love of cheekily remaking classic arthouse films, only to have his life changed by the quirky girl who enters his life, is enough to not just make you win Sundance Bingo, but fill out the whole card. Even so, even with all of its overt preciousness, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a touching, heartfelt film about the liberating power of creation and a great coming-of-age story on par with the surprisingly great Perks of Being a Wallflower from a couple years ago.
Perhaps the true success of Me and Earl is the way it manages to calibrate its own preciousness in the film’s favor. Greg (Joseph Mann), the plucky teen at the center of the film, is the quintessential indie-film protagonist – pop-culture literate, effortlessly witty, and emotionally stunted in the way you can only be in a film of this type. The film reflects this as well, with Alejandro Gomez-Rejon’s direction carrying shades of Wes Anderson formalism with the distanced character drama of Mike Nichols films; the movie is just as film-literate as Greg is, with visual and thematic allusions from films like Burden of Dreams to Soylent Green. Rather than it being an eye-rollingly showy way to demonstrate the filmmakers’ own snobbish film literacy (as is so often the case), it’s a refreshing visual indicator of Greg’s own self-professed shield he puts around the world. The entry of Rachel (Olivia Cooke, in a surprisingly sensitive and guarded performance that evades Manic Pixie Dream Girl status), a classmate and acquaintance diagnosed with leukemia, into Greg’s life forces him to contemplate his own fear of earnestness and engagement with the world, while at the same time understanding the small but important role he has to play in Rachel’s own journey to the end of hers.
Despite its many charms, there are admittedly occasions when Me and Earl’s meta-textual teenage glibness gets in the way of the storytelling. It’s difficult at first to get through all the walls Greg puts up in the film’s diegesis – his incessant narration, the glib title cards of “Day X of Doomed Friendship,” and his insistence on letting us know that Greg and Rachel’s friendship is purely platonic because this isn’t like your typical romantic story, guys. By the end, though, as Greg’s own struggles come to a head, and he must deal more immediately and consciously with Rachel’s impending death, the filmmaking itself loosens quite a bit, becoming more honest and vulnerable along with him. The results will absolutely bring a tear to your eye. While I worry a bit that Greg’s esoteric film tastes (this film basically felt brought to you by the Criterion Collection) and their role in the narrative might restrict this film to a very niche audience, Me and Earl itself is undeniably well-crafted, deeply sensitive, and heart-wrenchingly honest.
Verdict: Loved It!