Tuesday 3 September 2013

Biology 101 (2011)

Director: Christopher Smith
Stars: David Welborn, Noelle DuBois, Deborah O'Brien, Emily Bicks, MoƱey MacTavish, Morgan Peter Brown and David Alan Graf

I should open this review up with apologies, recommendations and disclaimers. Director Christopher Smith gave me a DVD late last year and I enjoyed it very much, but I haven't got round to reviewing the film until now, partly because it's unreleased and so unavailable for potential viewers to see. It's sad to see that, another ten months on, it's still unreleased but I'm happy to see that it's screening at FilmBar in Phoenix next Saturday night as part of Dark of the Matinee's monthly Arizona Filmmaker Showcase. So, my apologies to Chris for taking so long to review and my recommendation to you all that you go to this event to see for yourselves what I'm talking about here. Hopefully distributors will do the same! As for disclaimers, I had no involvement with this, Smith's debut feature as a director, but I enjoyed being an extra in his second, We Three, which has just wrapped principal photography and for which my better half handled set photography throughout.

The title here has a double meaning. Bill Pollard teaches biology as the head of science at Thatherton Community College, where he tries to impart anatomy to students who clearly don't care. However he also has a more personal interest in the subject, specifically in the anatomy of an internet model, Dani Darling, with whom he has become obsessed. The opening credits show us why, as they're backed by a succession of scantily clad shots of Dani, seductively posing for a camera that swoops in, out and around as a surrogate for our eyes and imagination. Yet, having set us up to think about sex, the film promptly places us into his bedroom where that's the last thing that's going to happen. 'Not tonight,' he tells his wife, Diane, for the third Thursday in a row. Their romantic spark has almost gone out, not because of exhaustion but because Dani Darling is Bill's new online substitute, neatly highlighted by her caressing him through the reflected glow of the screen against his face.

Of course, a middle aged man ruining his marriage through a porn obsession wouldn't make a thriller all on its own, so this one is quickly escalated. This webcam girl could be anywhere in the world, with her connection to Bill abstracted through the distance of the internet, but it's all brought into focus as a new girl transfers into his class. She looks immediately familiar to him, but the tattooed eyes on her lower back and the little frog charm on her wrist that he bought for her remove any doubt. The girl he knows as Dani Darling is really Marissa Weaver who has abruptly become his student. Suddenly this story has the potential to run in a hundred different directions all at once. Where it chooses to go is a mixture of slowly tightening suspense and clever humour. It's obvious that this isn't going to end well, as Pollard finds himself subconsciously stroking himself during a midterm only twenty minutes in, but where we're going to end up is wildly open. This is far from formula material.

It's here that Biology 101 really finds top gear and it does so with a vengeance. Initially the low budget kept our expectations similarly low. The credits, like the cover of the DVD, are decent but simple, the early scenes would have benefitted from better lighting and the key convenience that sets up the plot could easily be seen as cheesy. Pollard is fundamentally a middle aged nonentity in a routine job and a routine marriage, so any opportunities David Welborn might find in the role clearly haven't arrived yet. Only Noelle DuBois has been given a chance to shine thus far, tasked with portraying both the spicy Dani and the bored Marissa and finding a way for them to be believably the same person, which she does capably. She's certainly easy on the eyes, but perhaps not to the degree that we follow in Pollard's footsteps by falling in lust with her on the basis of some sultry still shots and some topless webcam gyration. Again, any potential to the character is still to come. We've just had setup thus far.

Yet there's clearly substance here that's creeping into the mundane setting and subtly waiting for us to notice. Mostly we notice during this midterm scene, as Pollard's mind believably blurs fantasy and reality, struggling to come to terms with a strange situation. That cheesy plot convenience is actually perfect, as it must feel like the beginning of a porno to Pollard, who's been objectifying Dani for some time and surely can't resist doing the same to Marissa. To him, it's literally a dream come true, but a nervous one with every potential to go horribly wrong and turn into a nightmare. Translating porn into reality is a surreal concept to begin with, but especially so for a middle aged man with no sex life but a daughter who he hasn't really noticed in years but suddenly can't help realising is almost as old as his virtual obsession. It all comes to a head, pun not intended, during the midterm, where his imagination runs wild and takes over for a few superbly constructed minutes of trainwreck.

The technique here is astounding for such a low budget movie. Well chosen camera angles build a neat claustrophobic tension as we wait for the inevitable moment when someone finally notices what he's doing and raises the stakes of the story. The editing merges mundane reality with sexy fantasy, a heady mixture whether that fantasy is webcam memories or Pollard's imagination running wild in the moment. The pace and score heighten as the scene progresses, mimicking both Pollard's increasing disconnect from reality and the sexual act he's imagining. Clever digital manipulation also allows his libido to run wild, so that he sees sexual material in everything: test questions, warning signs, even a poster of Albert Einstein on the classroom wall. This is what a mid-life crisis must feel like, a growing disconnection with everything except a wish fulfilment fantasy that might just have manifested itself in an omnipresent inviting little package.

Watching afresh, I felt as entertained by this picture as I was unnerved by Welborn's performance and the realm of inappropriateness his character becomes mired in. There are mild technical issues, of the sort that often populate microbudget films, especially debut features as a director begins to assemble the core crew that will stay with him for years. Many films like this come across as ends in themselves, allowing ideas to reach the screen and scratch a particular itch. Such filmmakers rarely make anything else, happy that they've made their movie. In so many ways, this feels like a beginning, as Smith and his partner-in-crime, Liz Bradley, put on record where they're at as filmmakers and set a benchmark to beat with subsequent releases. The professionality I saw when I played an extra on the last day of the We Three shoot merely underlined that. These folk have both the bug and a vision and my thinking is that Second Feature Productions will improve with each film they make. I look forward to seeing that.

Certainly there's a film that can act as a target for them and that's Absentia, the epitome of what can be done without a substantial budget. Bradley, who co-wrote this movie and provided its art direction and wardrobe, was a PA on Absentia, so got to experience what that crew could do in person. In fact, I first met her because of Absentia, hanging out after its screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival with director Mike Flanagan and star Morgan Peter Brown. That was the first time I'd met them too, but Bradley and Smith had worked with Brown before, in a short film called Piggies, which Smith wrote and directed and Bradley produced. Brown appears here too, as a chipper colleague of Pollard's at Thatherton who has a thing for microscopes. He's an absolute delight, Marty Figueroa as utterly unlike his role in Absentia as could be imagined. I really liked him in both films, though his character has little grounding here, serving mostly as a counter to the serious progression of the plot.

There's another recognisable face here too, namely David Alan Graf, a prolific actor who's racked up over 170 films in under a decade and a half. Many of those are cheap and cheerful productions that have little to recommend them, but he's one of those actors who are always watchable regardless of the quality of the film he's in. He plays Pollard's boss here, Mr Duke, but he doesn't get much to do, mostly just serve as a prop for Welborn and Brown to bounce off. Brown gets almost all of the fun moments, a constant presence in the background even though the story doesn't call on him to do much except defuse suspenseful moments with a bouncy rejoinder to something utterly unrelated. It's telling that I wanted to see more of Brown in both Absentia and Biology 101, but realise that his part in each film was as substantial as it needed to be for the stories at hand. He wasn't the focus in either: Absentia was about his wife's search for closure, while Biology 101 is about Pollard's mid-life crisis.

I do wonder how much Figueroa could have become in this story, just as I wonder how much all the other characters could have become, beyond being merely what they mean to Pollard. Perhaps the script revolves too much around him, but a hilarious blackmail scene highlights how this really isn't a traditional thriller, erotic or not, and more of a portrait of a man who has completely lost his way and isn't even sure if he should struggle to find his way back. Every scene about Dani or Marissa is really about what each half of that pair means to Pollard, just like every scene with Diane or Hannah or Dani's tech guy, Shawn Delacruz. Even more traditional elements, like violence, blackmail or sexual coercion take a back seat to his journey as a character. There's a scene late in the film that actually serves to defuse in one fell swoop what enables most such thrillers to function. It's hilarious in the context of this story and it's even more hilarious when considered more widely.

I hope that Biology 101 gets an opportunity to find an audience. It certainly deserves one, not just in the local Phoenix area but on a much wider scale. Sure, it's only 75 minutes long and it doesn't take the usual direction so you aren't likely to see this on Skinemax or HBO, but it's a worthy and different approach to a tired subject with a solid lead performance and a few good ones to back it up. Brown is a character actor to seek out and Graf is always reliable, but Noelle DuBois makes herself very known here and Emily Bicks does a solid job as Hannah. More than anything, the odd little touches here and there with the camera, editing or writing make this one stand out from the crowd. Maybe We Three, a more overt comedy feature about a threesome that goes wrong, will find Second Feature Productions a distribution deal and this one will seem like a gimme after that. I'm very much looking forward to Second Feature's second feature. And their third. And their fourth. And...