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Tuesday 30 December 2008

Buddy Boy (1999)

The Buddy Boy of the title is Francis and he's something of an introvert: certainly shy around girls. He works in some sort of photo lab but mostly spends his time at home caring for his invalid mother, who cannot walk, making models and apparently masturbating a lot. That isn't enough for confession though, as Francis's priest works under the logic that everyone should go to confession and have something to confess. In other words, the important thing is to rack up a list of bad things so that you can confess about them. Whether this is the key driver for subsequent actions, or whether they're just a happy accident, Francis notices a girl living on the other side of the street and becomes an avid voyeur.

This started out intriguingly (after all how many films dare to begin with the hero masturbating to porn mags?), but I got diverted into wondering about Susan Tyrrell. She plays Sal, Francis's wild and raucous mother, and she has what seem to be amputated legs, thus making her a stay at home invalid reliant on her son to move her around. The thing is that this is a 1999 film, released on 24th March 2000. From what I read, Susan Tyrrell contracted a rare blood disease called essential thrombocythemia in April 2000 that led to her having both legs amputated below the knee. I can't help wondering whether the dates I'm reading are wrong or whether she was already suffering and chose to soldier through. That certainly fits who she is: a character and a trooper.

Anyway, while she's always fascinating to watch and she's an inveterate scene stealer, she's not supposed to be the focus of our film. Francis is and to keep our eyes on him, writer/director Mark Hanlon keeps the camera on him for quite a while. We watch him watching the French girl over the street, then we watch him get thrown weirdly into what are presumably his fantasies. Walking home he intervenes in a mugging: his French girl is fighting off an attacker and he helps her out. She's Gloria and she invites him home for dinner. After a few successful attempts to reject even this semblance of closeness, he turns up and a few nights in they end up in bed together.

Now you'd think that this would be some kind of heaven to a grown up virgin voyeur but it brings its challenges. Beyond his obvious nervousness when talking to the opposite sex, so much so that he stutters, he's unable to quite stop watching her from across the way and he continues doing so long enough to see things that don't quite add up. There are all sorts of subtle nods to David Lynch throughout, not least the apparent discovery of a missing person in one of the photos he's processing at work, but strangest of all is that while Gloria professes to be a strict and passionate Vegan, Francis appears to discover through his voyeurism that she's really a cannibal in private.

I say 'appears' because this film doesn't take any easy ways out to tell us exactly what's happening, it drops hints and expects us to make our own judgement calls. The most obvious interpretation is that Francis is merely going insane, but even if we take that as given, it's still not quite that simple. What caused it? Is any of what he sees real? How much of what we've watched was only inside the head of the lead character? I juggled a lot of answers to those questions. I'm not sure quite how the Catholic imagery and commentary tie in, unless its loosely set up as the cause. There's a lot here about the nature of God and the impact of guilt. Even at the finale we're only given a fresh question.

Whatever it is, it's a powerful film let down only by some inconsistent sound, or so it seemed on the IFC screening I watched. Susan Tyrrell gives a tour de force performance, even for her: there's one scene in particular that will just amaze. Mark Boone Jr is excellent as the building supervisor that seems to move in. Emmanuelle Seigneur is subdued as Gloria but effective. Most notable for me though is Aidan Gillen, probably because I know full well how awesome an actress Tyrrell is so wasn't surprised to find her being awesome here. Gillen, however, was new to me and his performance is resonant in its quietness. He has manic scenes but most are subtle and quiet and stand out as such. Here he's like John Cusack would be if John Cusack was genetically engineered to be in a David Lynch movie.

What's most surprising is that Mark Hanlon, who wrote and directed as well as doing other work behind the scenes, hasn't done a lot else. Beyond this one notable film he has a credit as the writer of Ghost Ship and that's it. I wonder why. I wonder if he's going to crop up at a festival sometime in the near future with a masterpiece that he's spent a decade perfecting. I'd like to know that someone with such obvious talent doesn't have more to his name.

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