Saturday 27 April 2013

Wild Girl Waltz (2012)

Director: Mark Lewis
Stars: Christina Sharp, Samantha Steinmetz and Jared Stern

Strangely, Wild Girl Waltz was at once exactly what its simple synopsis and its quirky trailer claim it to be and something utterly different again. It's clearly the extrapolated product of a single idea but it's less clear how deliberately extrapolated it is. It often feels as if that idea had merely been let loose into the air so the filmmakers, both in front of and behind the camera, could collaborate on its evolution. Director Mark Lewis is also credited as the writer, but I wonder how much here is really his writing and how much it's his ideas improvised on by the three leads as they went. One of the successes of the film, perhaps the most important one, is how real everything feels. I have no idea if Christina Shipp and Samantha Steinmetz knew each other before shooting this film, but it feels like they grew up together as inseparable friends because their chemistry is strong indeed. Jared Stern is the straight man to this pair, but he makes for a comfortable third wheel.

The single idea from which this film begins is that Brian, already having a bad day, gets home to discover that Angie and Tara, his sister and his fiancé respectively, are starting to feel the buzz of some 'goofy pills' they took, as nothing more than an escape from boredom. He's thus tasked with babysitting them until they return to whatever passes for normality for these two, something that I wondered about more and more as the film ran on. They're stable people, not remotely like the seasoned explorers into pharmaceutical chemistry who populate most drug movies. In fact, this is really not a drug movie at all; we never find out the names of the mystery pills that the girls take, we're never told what effects they might have and we're never really sure when those effects run out. While this film could be seen as that rarity on screen, a positive drug experience, and clearly the pills are seen as real, it all works just as well if we pretend that they're merely placebos.

Really what matters here are the characters and on that front, this film is a huge success from the very first scene, which really sets the stage for what is to come. Angie is walking down Monument Road when a 'drive by redneck douchebag' pelts her in the face with a milkshake. There isn't any apparent malice or any reason for the event at all beyond that this is apparently the sort of thing that redneck douchebags do, but Angie's reactions are priceless. In most films, this would be the pivotal scene, to which everything would inevitably return, or at least it would provide a character with motivation to change. But those films tend to have plots, which this one refreshingly ignores. Yes, things move forward here and moments like this may be referenced later on, but it's quickly obvious that the events don't matter in themselves, it's all in the reactions. Angie's reaction here is what makes the scene and it combines with other reactions to build her character.
I was surprised to find that neither Christina Shipp nor Samantha Steinmetz appear to have much experience on film. Shipp has performed since she was young but only has two prior film credits on IMDb: a smaller role in a science fiction feature called Either Or and a slot in a short film back in 2008 as a deliberately 'unexceptional daughter'. In the cast notes for Either Or she's described as 'hip and flirty, with a rebellious edge'; the latter was put to excellent use here. Steinmetz's only other credit is for a short film, but she's been praised for her stage work off-Broadway. She looks like a country singer but should be acting in France; French cinema would surely give her a lot of opportunities. Certainly both have such strong but natural presences on screen that they deserve to appear on it more often. It isn't just what they do in the goofy scenes, it's even more apparent in what they do in the quieter ones when we're not really sure if they're still high or not.

Jared Stern appears to be the most experienced of the three, but he's the least enjoyable. Perhaps that's partly to do with his part, which is inevitably going to be the one we like least. After all, who cares about the sober guy in a room full of drunks? It's much easier to get drunk yourself and join the chorus. Brian becomes the babysitter, the designated driver, the sober guy, thus becomes the character who's tasked with reining in the girls and stopping them from having too much fun. As we're having fun watching them have fun, he inevitably reins us in too and so naturally we're not going to like him as much. Fortunately his buzzkill tendencies rapidly decrease as the girls' buzz decreases and the emotional parity of the characters is restored. It's counterintuitive but simply by being the same character throughout, while the girls soar away and return, he's the one who ends up with the most obvious story arc and it's a satisfying one. I still find that odd.

The characters are the first win here, bolstered by the acting of the three leads. The second win is the dialogue, which is written well and delivered well. As Tara picks Angie up from her milkshake incident, she tells her that it looks like she 'got a money shot from Frankenberry'. Angie says that she feels 'like the floor of a movie theatre'. Lines like these ones sparked a lot of laughter from my family and I and I appreciated them in a way I rarely do nowadays. Usually I laugh at well crafted humour, such as the biting wit of the Ealing comedies or the slapstick genius of the silent greats, while I'm less enthused by the modern approach of laughing at characters rather than with them. The writing here is clearly contemporary but it's infused throughout with an older, far more gentle humour that made me laugh with these characters in a natural and collaborative way, as if I was glowing there with them. In many ways I shared in their positive trip.
While the humour is a huge success, the serious moments don't always match up. Brian's first big scene after a quick demonstration of his chemistry with Tara is a serious one, as he attempts to persuade Ernie to pay back the money he's lent him. It's a jarring scene in my memory and would be in the film too if only it hadn't been got out of the way so early. I don't know why it's there; the drama doesn't sit well with the free spirited improvisational feel of the rest of the movie. Similarly moments that bring in other, sober characters tend to feel unwelcome, like attempts to wake us from a particularly enjoyable dream. Kim Gordon plays Mrs Wolverton exactly right, but we're so attuned to the girls at this point that she's merely a distraction, albeit one that allows for a truly outstanding out of the blue moment that almost made my better half spray her computer screen with soda. Only Gary, the bartender, really fits within the world these girls are inhabiting.

There are other problems too. The camerawork is annoyingly jerky at points throughout the film, though fortunately not too many. I was bemused at how agreeably stable it was when shooting from Brian's Dodge while in motion, a trick that many low budget filmmakers frustratingly can't seem to master, but how jerky it became in other non-mobile moments when the camera didn't even need to move at all. There are also periodic scenes where the sound is ratcheted down to nothing and an instrumental takes its place, so that we watch a continuation but from a greater emotional distance. These aren't just filler, but they're closer to it than they should be. At least they preserve the feel of the piece generally if not completely, like unimpressive flute solos in a folk song. I'd have preferred something more substantial in their stead. The framework the film has wouldn't have made that difficult at all though the $10,000 budget won't have helped.

The final flaw isn't a flaw at all but it's mostly going to be seen as one. While this goofy trip is set up clearly, with Angie and Tara taking a pill each and then waiting for effects to be felt, the other end of the journey not only isn't marked, it's ignored entirely. I initially felt disappointed that the movie petered out until the credits rolled, but afterwards I felt much happier about it. While Lewis aimed at the feel of nineties films like Clerks and Slacker, it took me back to the early seventies and the abstract approaches to narrative taken during that period of creative freedom. The gentle decline of what little story this has reminded me of Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, where the point gradually ceased to be until the film literally burned away on screen. The pastoral feel reminded me of Van Morrison's stream of consciousness Veedon Fleece in that it's immersive and elusive at the same time, like a dream. I liked it very much but I may like its memory even more.

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