starring Jesus Castanos, Araceli Guzman-Rico, Emily Rios, Alicia Sixtos
written and directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
FALL TO GRACE
starring René Alvarado, Ricardo Azulay, Bill Johnson, Cassidy Johnson
written and directed by Mari Marchbanks
THE PUFFY CHAIR
starring Mark Duplass, Kathryn Aselton, Rhett Wilkins, Julie Fischer
screenplay by Mark Duplass
directed by Jay Duplass
by Walter Chaw Gentrification is the inciting phenomenon of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Quinceañera, only the second film to land both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance. Its celebration at the festival--which, like most festivals, prices itself culturally and financially out of most of the subjects its films exploit--should be regarded as something of a foregone conclusion: If it's not a product born of self-flagellation, Quinceañera at least owes its existence to an instinct towards the atonement of its two white, privileged creators, shooting a quasi-documentary/half-improvised character drama in the Echo Park neighbourhood where they found themselves the land-investor fixer-uppers. But it's even more complicated than that, owing to Glatzer and Westmoreland's homosexuality and the specific insight that an unpopular, oft-misrepresented minority engaged in the creation of a non-traditional family unit might bring to a story of another unpopular, oft-misrepresented minority (Mexican working class) looking to create a haven of kinship in a sea of cultural turmoil. Inserting themselves into the story as unkind spoiler-avatars in the piece (a gay, white couple acts as Quinceañera's bogeymen)--the set for their tasteful duplex serves as Glatzer/Westmoreland's real-life digs--is as thorny a po-mo entanglement as these two otherwise successful guys interpolating themselves in their neighbour's lives, homes, and rituals with movie cameras and an evangelical mission.
Magdalena (Emily Rios) has a prettier sister and a looming date with her own Quinceañera: a traditional celebration (sort of debutante "coming out" ceremony) that marks a Mexican girl's fifteenth birthday. Her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia) is the very image of a Mexican gang-banger, fulfilling the papi chulo fantasies of his gay landlords when he's forced to move in with his old uncle Tomas (Peckinpah fave Chalo González) while managing through the sympathies of the filmmakers and Garcia's affecting performance to transcend either stereotype with grace and intelligence. Much of Quinceañera is a surprise in that vein; the opening scenes of partying teens speaking in that impenetrable patois of youth tests the patience of the most sympathetic viewer, yet as the picture proceeds, it becomes clear that the prejudices that threatened to push me into the lobby were my own and that the strength of the piece is in the care with which Glatzer and Westmoreland handle their characters. It reminded me of Nir Bergman's Broken Wings, that Israeli film from a couple of years back about a small family that avoided almost any mention of the turmoil of their surroundings and, in the process of sketching a detailed, human portrait, spoke volumes about it. You might be tempted to roll your eyes and say that of course Magdalena gets pregnant, but Quinceañera challenges this stereotype as well with a series of strong insights into the fundamentalist religion that serves as the backbone of the culture. Too strong, some might say, and the picture's transparency of purpose erodes its usefulness as a social auger. We know what's on its mind, but the trip might be worth taking, anyway.
Gentrification of a different kind infuses two Austin-bred projects hitting the arthouse circuit almost simultaneously in herky-jerky rollout releases. Russian clowns, Russian gangsters, Texan drug-dealers, Some Kind of Wonderful-era hairdos, hunky-jock exchange students treated like the nerd class, manufactured tragedies, hackneyed social critiques--the lot of it brought together in Fall to Grace by first-time hyphenate Mari Marchbanks with an unspeakable screenplay and a collection of performances that veer from awful to just run-of-the-mill bad. The picture is hopeless: hopelessly earnest, hopelessly well-intentioned, hopelessly bad. The folk ballad soundtrack by local rock heroes says all there needs to be said, really, the dirge unspooling beneath its melancholic opening credits promising more to come.
Consider the scene where hulking drug dealer Auggie (Bill Johnson) proclaims that a kid "looks like a punk," only to have Marchbanks, sans any hint of irony, cut to a close-up of a kid with a spiked mohawk and leather jacket. Hilarious and not on purpose (think "That kid looks like a clown" and then a pan to Bozo in red wig and nose), the description goes for every exchange between the adults in this roundelay melodrama (which steals from everything from The Killing to Austin bible Slacker), locating the demiurge to the preciously-titled Fall to Grace as a corn factory fertilized for about twenty years with the cream of the indie dysfunction crop. If there's a function for this film, it's to give everyone quick to jump on the arthouse bandwagon a reminder that lack of talent, budget, and distribution is often--brace yourself--an indication that the product stinks to high heaven. No one should have to tackle a line like "You know inside of me," and more to the point, no one should have to listen to it. Blame Sundance.
Though actress Kira Pozehl threatens a time or two to overcome the script and staging, the rest of her compatriots are swallowed whole by flat camera set-ups and thrift-store production design that has a crystal chandelier in a country kitchen hung so low that its giant denizen would be banging his nut on it roughly every three minutes. Or blame editing that gives every last dialogue exchange the frantic, extreme-close-up/chop cut energy of a monumental plot point when, point in fact, they just seem to be talking burgers and fries. Without a lot of squinting, you could view the piece as a primer on how not to make a movie--even a satire of bad cinema, maybe. The only place this kind of unleavened hysteria makes sense is in a telenovela.
To be fair, Fall to Grace might best be described as a season of "Dos Mujeres, Un Camino" smashed from two decades of histrionics into feature-length form. The style of the picture is so out of tune with its "deep meaning" intentions that it actually made me itch. If it achieves any kind of success, it'll be because Crash made this type of overlapping liberal handjob briefly prestigious and not because every word Julia Polozova drops as a long-suffering Russian mommy sounds like a community theatre audition for a Georgian dinner theatre version of "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone". Add overlit to the picture's list of technical difficulties; defenders of the "spirit" of these indie pics, be aware that Austin prodigal Richard Linklater made silk purses out of the same no-budget sow's ears with an unerring ear for dialogue, gift with mise-en-scène, sense of character and rhythm, and an actual desire to do something new instead of simply something.
At least The Puffy Chair uses Cassavetes's laconic, loquacious love stories as a template, following the relational travails of ex-failed-Austin-rocker Josh (writer Mark Duplass--brother Jay is the film's director) and girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton, Mark Duplass's real-life fiancée) as they take a van and Josh's brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) on a road trip to pick up the titular eBay-acquired furniture item and deliver it for their father's surprise birthday party. As the road trip genre is best when it's used as a catalyst for a metaphysical journey of discovery engaged in by our protagonists, the narrative of The Puffy Chair is not nearly so important as the rambling, improvised conversations (arguments and pillow talk) engaged in by its trio of twentysomething slacker pilgrims. There's a little Linklater in the stew, too, of course, and the Duplass brothers extract similar broth from the modest bones of their premise and cast of unaffected players. A breakfast the morning after the sort of moonstruck spectacle that most of us remember from that one night from our lost youth stands as the highlight of the piece: terse and hopeless but at the same time melancholic, breathless, and sweet. At its best moments (and there are a couple of great ones in here), The Puffy Chair makes you want to shake some sense into the kids struggling mortally with what appears small-time in the rear-view--but then there's the realization that poetry is woven from these threads of wilfulness and the courage of being naïve in love. Originally published: August 23, 2006.