Thursday, May 01, 2008

IFFB 2008: My Effortless Brilliance

Saturday was probably my favorite day at the IFFB this year - pretty nice day, which makes getting from home to the Brattle to Somerville to Brookline and back again less annoying, good movies from start to end, and entertaining guests. You really can't ask for a whole lot more than that.

I liked My Effortless Brilliance a lot, and it had probably my favorite short I saw at the festival playing before it - "Woman in Burka" is funny stuff, with a middle-eastern New York actress up for a role in what may be a drama and may be a horror movie while also worrying about her visa and other day-to-day issues that come up. Part of the fun is that most of the actors are playing versions of themselves, so the insider-y joke about how every actor in New York has done some Law & Order at some point is funnier when two of the other actresses up for the role were regulars on the shows at some point - which gave little impression that the actresses in question could be so funny; Samantha Buck, especially, is hilarious.

My Effortless Brilliance

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2008 at the Somerville Theater #4 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I suppose it speaks well of me and the people I know that I've never had a friendship end like in the beginning of My Effortless Brilliance. Sure, there's a long list of people I've fallen out of contact with once we weren't in the same place on a regular basis, but it's never been the break-up, where one person says "you're a terrible friend and I don't want to be around you any more."

That's how Lynn Shelton starts My Effortless Brilliance, but one "two years later" caption and cast-off Eric (Sean Nelson) is trying to reconnect. The East Coast writer is in Washington State on a book tour, and his stop in Walla Walla is near where Dylan (Basil Harris) is the editor of a community newspaper. Well, four and a half hours away, and he had to ask for the directions to the cabin in the woods where Dylan is living. And he didn't tell Dylan he was coming. Dylan's a little sarcastic and annoyed when he finally gets home, but offers to let Eric stay the night. Things do get a little weird when Dylan's new best friend Jim (Calvin Reeder) pops in; there's a fair amount of drinking leading up to the crew deciding to hunt the cougar that's been prowling around.

"Relationship" is a word with a general meaning (how two people or things effect each other) that is often assumed to have a more specific meaning (romantic or sexual). Shelton and her cast play with that dual usage while staying well back from confusing them. What goes on with Eric, Dylan, and Jim plays off the sorts of jealousies and emotions that frequently crop up among dating couples - it's not really that much different to wonder why an old pal has this guy for a best friend than to judge his new girlfriend harshly, and the parallel is amusing. It's a thin line, though, because one step too far and suddenly there's a weird subtext that might perhaps make for a good movie on its own but isn't what this one is about. Eric and Dylan and Dylan and Jim are friends, nothing more, even if they do occasionally do the same things couples do.

They're funny doing it, too. The film is mostly improvised - the cast members are also given writing credits - and most of the film is a stream of guy talk, one-liners that strike the characters as funny at the time. It rings truer than the guy talk we often get in movies - it's not just swearing, comments about women and their body parts, and pop-culture references. It's kind of random, sometimes alcohol-fueled, and generally seeks chuckles rather than guffaws. The only time it doesn't quite ring true is in a discussion of the merits of Charles Bukowski, which seems too obviously designed to show the continuum of personalities, from Eric's literary snobbishness to Jim's lack of concern with things other than the practical.

All three actors turn in nice work. Nelson gets the most broadly comic role, the somewhat overweight city boy who doesn't belong out in the woods, but plays him a bit short of ridiculous. Yes, he's a fish out of water, and kind of selfish, but also kind of lonely and frequently able to bring the genuinely funny line. Harris does what initially looks like a classic slow burn, irritated by Eric's unannounced presence and how ridiculous the guy is. He's got a bit of an edge to his voice sometimes; he looks like he belongs in this rural wooded cabin but is quite able to break out a shapr, sarcastic wit. Reeder makes Jim less sophisticated but good to share a drink with, smart in areas where the others are kind of ignorant, and amusingly jealous or at odds with the city folk at a certain point.

Friendship is probably the most common relationship that exists, to the point where most movies take it for granted. Lynn Shelton's got a nifty take on it here, and it's a nifty treat to see it treated as something dynamic and challenging as romance without being a gateway to the same.

Also on EFC.

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