Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dance Party, USA

Dir - Aaron Katz

Viewed: From the Couch

Clocking in a just over an hour, Aaron Katz delivers a small yet sumptuous slice of the last moments of high school life with Dance Party, USA. The opening shot finds Jessica (the endlessly adorable Anna Kavan) waking up on the living room floor of a house where every stable surface is claimed by an empty beer bottle or ubiquitous red plastic cup. It's morning and she wanders around the house. Despite what may have happened last night, she is alone now. Gus finds himself in a similar situation, realizing the limitations of drinking with friends and casual sex, the things that fill the days of a typical teenager, as a means to fill the soul.

Shot in a style similar to his Mumblecore (have we come up with a better word yet?) brethren Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, we follow a small group of kids through the eye of Katz's video camera as they pass the time during a Fourth of July weekend. We first meet Gus as he's having a good time describing one of his past sexual encounters with a 14 year old to his friend Bill (who everyone else knows as Gus' Friend, much to his frustration). The story he tells quickly gets a bit disturbing -- similar to the conversations Telly would have with Casper in the film Kids. When Gus is done though, Bill doesn't quite by it. "I buy some of your shit, some of it," he tells Gus, "but not this shit." Gus seems confused and a little hurt by Bill's accusation but we later find out Bill was right. But the 14 year old girl is very real and when Gus comes to terms with what did happen with that girl last summer the film achieves a very honest and poignant level of film making and storytelling that is moving and awkward in the best sense.

There is a a lot of awkward moments and conversations in Dance Party. High school is of course the most awkward period in anyone's life, but there's a common problem with articulation among everyone we spend time with. Some of this is due to drukeness and some of it seems to come from a hesitation to be truthful. Before Gus meets Jessica at the Fourth of July party, he runs into an old friend who's been aimlessly traveling for a while. This friend tries to tell Gus his experiences driving through Nebraska and it's a painful thing to watch. You can tell he's had a life changing experience there, but he's unwilling or unable to express it. Gus is patient with him, he's looking for something meaningful as well, but his friend ends with a discouraged "I don't know..." But Gus soon meets Jessica sitting outside of the party, watching some cheap fireworks go off. It's obvious she's tired of the party as well and to Gus' surprise she has the ability to break down that wall in him, that he can tell her the truth about what happened with the 14 year old girl last summer.

It's a movie of small moments like these. It doesn't try to preach the importance of redemption or what it means to grow-up, but it finds and focuses on the moments when small steps are made in those directions. It's a great little film and the kind that I hope never goes away. I've pondered the bleak state of American independent film on here before and I can find nothing better than what is being produced by this small collective that has the unfortunate moniker of Mumblecore. There's never been better artistic advice than when the first person told someone, simply write what you know. Aaron Katz and his friends are coming from that honest place and their stories have so much more soul to them than the film students that try to jump into the ring by aping the style of whatever their heroes did. You can see them honing their technique, improving and becoming more confident as they move forward and for me, these are some of the most exciting films being made these days.

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