Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BUFF - Anywhere, USA

Dir. Chusy Haney-Jardin

Viewed: From the Balcony

The Closing Night film for this year's Boston Underground Film Festival was a fairly straight-forward choice as far as BUFF line-ups go, but the film managed to win the directors choice for Best Feature this year (it also won a special jury prize at this year's Sundance). Anywhere, USA falls into what might as well be a sub-genre all its own -- the three loosely inter-connected tales film. But unlike Magnolia or Pulp Fiction or any Alejandro Inarritu film, the tales in Anywhere, USA are even less connected than most. Though the three stories supposedly take place in the same town (the name of which gets bleeped out whenever a character says it), the settings don't look the same or even play much of a part in tying the film together. Basically what we're given is three short films, the first of which is quite funny, followed by a more somber and less revelatory entry which leads to a long one joke finale. While the film is quite well made and the performances far better than expected, the movie does suffer from an unevenness and lack of a solid ending or overarching vision.

There's a somewhat mysterious narration that bridges the film's chapters and starts us off. We're told we'll be exploring three attributes: Penance, Loss and Ignorance -- the three chapters of the film. The beginning of the film has a great, dreamy quality. The soothing narration rolls over us as we're shown languid images of empty rooms, a bowling ball rolling down a miniature race track, a grasshopper on a perch. It's great because you have no idea what to expect and this continues during Penance, where we follow the relationship of Gene and Tammy, a defiantly redneck couple introduced by Gene stepping into the shower and Tammy whacking him over the back with a tennis racket. Penance. The story of Tammy and Gene is told in a clever manner as the subject of an afternoon gossip session between two local ladies spending the day tanning and sipping bottles of Kegger beer. Tammy and Gene were in love, Gene cheated, Tammy kicked him out, Gene began spying on Tammy and through the help of his friend Little Ricky ends up convinced that Tammy's new internet habit has opened the door for the Taliban to infiltrate their beloved All-American town. It's absurd stuff that has everything from the photography to the music working to create something uniquely funny and popping with a great energy. Gene, Tammy, Little Ricky and the two gossips are vivid, alive, fun characters to spend an entire movie with and so it's a bit of a shame to have to leave them 1/3rd of the movie in.

Penance is a hard act to follow and as we move into Loss it soon becomes clear that the tone is now far more serious and what was unique in the telling of the first story has now given way to more standard, idiosyncratic indie movie familiarities. Loss is still filled with rich detail and good performances -- amazing really, when you consider all but one actor in the film is making their feature debut. That one is the daughter of the film maker, Perla Haney-Jardin, who gives a very strong performance that does in fact recall Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon (a movie which is even referenced here). It's kind of the curse of the second portion of the film, while the performances are quality, the characters have a familiarity that isn't exactly comforting. Perla Haney-Jardin plays the toughened, wiser-than-her-age kid who loses the last bit of her innocence when she discovers, the hard way, that there is no tooth fairy. With her thrift store clothes and her equally charming, bohemian guardian (in this case her uncle) there's nothing about her story that comes close to the inventiveness of the first portion.

And pretty much all is lost in the final third of the film, Ignorance. It has its fun dealing with an upper cruster who decides during diner with the wife and teenage son, much to their horror, to find a black friend. Yeah, it does sound a bit like that Seinfeld episode and it isn't any funnier. It goes on much too long and mostly repeats the same joke over and over again. Oblivious, rich white man desires black friend, wife shakes her head and takes another drink, son feels shame. Even more so than with the second story, with the Ignorance chapter, there's none of the discovery and excitement that permeated the first part. There's laughs to be had as there always are watching a determined idiot, but they're followed by a glance at your watch and a sigh.

Chusy is a film maker to keep an eye on though. It's immediately apparent that his own eye is quite good -- for a small budget first feature Anywhere, USA looks like a million bucks. And whether it be a case of great casting or expert directing, he has a way of making first-time actors look like seasoned professionals. At just about 2 hours there's half a movie worth watching here that will surprise you and have you believing that Chusy is the next big deal in a Wes Anderson kind of way. I don't have any doubt that he can create unique worlds and characters that are full of that same kind of loving attention to detail that you'd rush to spend time in, there just needs to be a stronger focus on fleshing out a singular vision for each film rather than the less satisfying little-bit-of-everything approach Anywhere, USA goes for. But it is hard to be negative towards a first feature that is as strong as this one is to show what Chusy is capable of. The road out of Anywhere, USA is certainly full of promise.

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