Dir. Todd Rohal
While it never achieves lift-off to become the spirited absurdist tale that shines beneath some murky filmic waters, The Guatemalan Handshake has an agreeable odd-ball charm, an admirable gonzo spirit and effective stylization. Most remarkable are the gobsmackingly gorgeous shots and sequences that raise the film to heights that unfortunately the rest of it can't quite match. It isn't nearly as bad as some of the comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite might lead you (or me, at any rate) to believe but it lacks the authenticity of early David Gordon Green, as George Washington would be a more apt comparison, or the unique world building of Guy Maddin.
Unfortunately the film doesn't quite star Will Oldham, though he does provide the central character. He plays the put-upon Donald, who in the opening sequence finds some shoes, a dead dog and wanders off to no-one-knows-where, only to appear again in a few flashbacks. He's the boyfriend of pregnant Sadie and the son of the eccentric Mr. Turnupseed and the loose plot revolves around how his disappearance affects the lives of the people in his backwoods town. (There is some business involving Sadie competing in a smash-up derby -- a sub-culture worthy of a different film all its own.) But calling any character here eccentric is pointless since every one of them, except perhaps for the narrator, Turkeylegs, is in one way or another a bit of a space cadet. And not always in any sort of charming way either. The character named Stool, for example, is one of the more unpleasant creations I've come along in some time. In that way he is a bit like a character out of a Jared Hess film -- with his ironic mustache and self-absorbed nastiness. How Sadie ends up falling for Stool after Donald's disappearance defies human nature. But then Sadie isn't the most pleasant of characters either and the film doesn't seem too interested in representing any sort of commonplace reality.
I'm not one who needs likable characters to enjoy a film but I do need them to be more than just a collection of walking affectations and goofy hang-ups. This really is the ongoing crutch of the indie film, and one that doesn't seem to be going away. But for all Wes Anderson's incessant desires to deal only with over-affected characters, he always manages to give them a soul. In the case of Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely (another auteur Rohal style could draw comparisons to, at his best) the lack of a honest personality can work when it is part of the point. This is certainly something that Rohal could improve upon. But then The Guatemalan Handshake doesn't have any intentions on being a character study or anything of the like. It works best at being a series of vignettes loosely tied together by some recurring characters. The scenes that hit their mark are funny and/or poignant and are impeccably shot. There are a few of these scenes -- Mr. Turnupseed losing his temper on his shed's Master lock, Stool loosing his shit when his bus breaks down, an extended Maddin-like black & white flashback to the heroics of daredevil Spank Williams, a simple moment of Turkeyleg in a picturesque field -- and they all work more or less without any context; or, in other words, despite the unmemorable characters. The scenes that fall flat tend to feel slow or repetitive and that feeling creeps up too often.
Todd Rohal is certainly one to keep an eye on. For a first feature he's made a film with a distinct voice and an uncommonly sharp eye. If too much of the film failed to connect with me, it didn't fail to make an impression. Its unpredictable spirit is ambitious, endearingly ramshackle and handmade. If only those qualities could be sustained for an entire film and be applied to the people in Rohal's world as well, I could recommend the film a bit more.