9 08 2016

JoshyAs predicted by myself and many people smarter than me, the so-called mumblecore movement shot to cultural prominence in the wake of 2013’s “Drinking Buddies.” These low-budget, short production films began attracting some bright talent from television and cinema. With their unscripted, improvisation style and lived-in qualities, it’s no wonder that comedians and dramatists alike rushed to appear in their own.

With a large cast featuring small screen scene stealers like Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, sketch performers like Nick Kroll and Brett Gelman, indie dream girls like Jenny Slate and Alison Brie, and even filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry and Joe Swanberg themselves in front of the camera, Jeff Baena’s “Joshy” feels a bit like “Mumblecore: The Movie.” (Or at least what our culture has decided it will be today.) The simple pleasures of watching this group interact for an hour and a half cannot be understated.

Yet recent films of a similar ilk such as “Digging for Fire” felt like a hangout for hangout’s sake, with thematics tacked on and a narrative throughline threaded in as an afterthought. The conversations and group dynamics of “Joshy,” however, are baked into the films reason for existing itself. After the eponymous character suffers a tragedy that lays to waste his marital plans, his motley crew of buddies use the house reserved for his bachelor weekend as the venue and occasion for a cheer-up mission.

It quickly becomes obvious that while his trio of bros attempt to play the role of fun-loving therapists, they too are all undergoing hardcore emotional stressors of their own. Each attempts some level of macho posturing – whether in relation to booze, drugs or strippers – to mask the pain. Their buddy makes it all too easy to feel superior; the pet name Joshy suggests both femininity and childishness.

If the film feels at times meandering, it’s because Baena both admirably gives the main men space to work out their issues while also providing ample space to critique them. By being at the center of the film, Joshy and pals are inevitable magnets of symapthy and understanding. But Baena never lets the men of “Joshy” off the hook for what could come across as tunnel vision or indefensible behavior. A more “grown-up” family, played by Joe and Kris Swanberg, drops in on their retreat and delivers a pretty firm scolding. Similarly, a group of call girls makes reference to the gang as resembling creepy serial killer types. It’s a pretty satisfying way to balance the competing impulses of developing the characters and indulging the actors. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Unexpected

24 07 2015

UnexpectedIn Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” pregnancy functions as something more than just a nine month-long sentence that brings agony and joy in unequal measure.  Here, it serves as a springboard into the future that simultaneously forces a reckoning with the present.

As the film’s title might imply, Cobie Smulder’s protagonist Samantha Abbott finds herself in the family way at a very inopportune moment.  The school where she currently teaches must close its doors due to budget cuts, and she still feels a strong enough urge to impact the lives of students that she cannot simply hang up the cleats to become a stay-at-home mom.

Swanberg’s script, co-written with Megan Mercier, gives her little to do other than endure pregnancy with one of her students, the promisingly bright Jasmine (Gail Bean).  Whether they are working through Jasmine’s college application, preparing with a session of prenatal yoga, or just plain gorging on a milkshake, “Unexpected” always delights even when largely void of dramatic tension.

The film does deliver (excuse the pun) on a subtle interrogation of the “great white savior”/”nice white lady” trope that often makes its way to the forefront in films involving two characters from different backgrounds.  Swanberg and Mercier put Samantha and Jasmine in the same situation, which itself levels the playing field between them somewhat.  But in spite of her best intentions, Samantha discovers that even – and perhaps especially – when it comes to maternity clothes, one size does not fit all.  Vast socioeconomic divides still exist between them, and “Unexpected” probes these macro-level prejudices and disparities brilliantly through the use of micro-aggressions.

This commentary makes for a nice addition to the film, but what really makes the price of admission worth it is Cobie Smulders.  For heaven’s sake, can she just tear up her contract with Marvel and keep doing small, heartfelt indies like this (and “Results,” for that matter)?  Smulders possesses an uncanny ability to convey a devastating sense of fragility in her characters, a particularly remarkable feat considering that she also erects an iron-clad facade of normalcy for them to hide behind.

She turns in touching work in “Unexpected,” so natural-feeling that it cannot help but evoke a suspicion that Smulders has yet to reach the apex of her dramatic talents.  What a sight that will be.  B+3stars