Saturday 3 May 2014

Foster, You're Dead (2013)

Director: Kyle Gerkin
Stars: Jake Moss, Michael Hanelin, Shellie Ulrich, Colleen Hartnett, Michael Coleman and John Hartnett
This month's Running Wild review brought a whole slew of surprises with it. I was surprised to realise it's a science fiction film, perhaps a first for this prolific production company, even if it's of the sort that has no spaceships, aliens or ray guns; their genre material leans towards noir, with some 52 Films/52 Weeks entries dipping their toes in horror. I was surprised to find that it's adapted from a short story by Philip K Dick, as I haven't read it. Worse still, I don't own it. I only have three of the five volumes of his Collected Stories and I'm missing the third, The Father-Thing, which contains this. Just to rub my nose in it, it's also in the new editions of volume two, Second Variety, naturally the other one that I'm missing. It was first published in the third of Frederik Pohl's long-running paperback anthology series Star Science Fiction Stories, though my copies only start at number twenty. Its copyright renewal notice references the May 1955 issue of Worlds of If, but my British editions don't start until 1960. Clearly my library is lacking.

The reason that Running Wild can adapt Philip K Dick, the well known source for Hollywood blockbusters like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, is that this story is in the public domain, yet another surprise. Apparently, while the renewal notice references that Worlds of If issue, it isn't actually in it, so negating the copyright. This surprise generates another one, namely that if most of Dick's stories from 1952 to 1963 are in the public domain today, as SFF Audio have researched, why are low budget film production companies not adapting these easily filmed stories more often. Dick wrote science fiction, but his work often doesn't require effects. His best stories were less about extrapolating the future by subtly changing a detail of the world we live in and more about highlighting that existing detail in an odd and insightful way that invariably rings truer over time. This 1955 story explored consumerism and Cold War paranoia but it works as well looking at terrorism, security theatre, school shootings and vendor lock-in.

Another welcome surprise is that it's over 25 minutes long, which means it doesn't have to skimp on its treatment. The only catch is that, while it grabs us well, it refuses to escalate its pace, so that it's a little slow at points. It opens strongly, if we discount my initial misunderstanding of fifth grader Mike Foster's dazed look in class. I thought he was daydreaming about Mrs Cummings, because what twelve year old wouldn't lust after Colleen Hartnett with her hair in a severe bun, but he's really just anxious because of how out of place he's becoming in a patriotic and militaristic United States. He isn't doing well in knife design or breath suspension classes, but he could surely get over those limitations if only his dad wasn't an anti-P. That's the tough hurdle. Being an anti-P means that they don't support the Defence Fund and they don't even own a gun. Mrs Cummings is shocked at the discovery. 'How are you going to defend yourself,' she asks, 'when there's an attack?' Note the 'when' not 'if' in that sentence.
As with each of the entries in Running Wild's 52 Films/52 Weeks project, this is not merely an adaptation from the public domain, it's a translation to contemporary times, though I have a feeling that they didn't have to change much here. Dick wrote the original story after reading a newspaper headline. Apparently, the President, presumably Eisenhower given the timeframe, had 'suggested that if Americans had to buy their bomb shelters, rather than being provided with them by the government, they'd take better care of them, an idea which made me furious. Logically, each of us should own a submarine, a jet fighter, and so forth.' So the original story focused on bomb shelters, turned into commodities by the military industrial complex and upgraded each year. To feel more timely, this adaptation focuses instead on guns, powerful assault rifles that otherwise follow the same path. Mike's dad refuses to buy into this lock-in for rational reasons, which has made him and the family un-American pariahs in their community.

Just like another gift to low budget filmmakers, Ray Bradbury's The Pedestrian, it means that we watch a character who is normal to us, suffer in a world that looks like ours but differs only in the extrapolation of something that already exists for us. In The Pedestrian, a writer is sentenced to psychiatric treatment for walking and being a writer, now deviant behaviour when everyone else is perpetually glued to their TV screens. In Foster, You're Dead!, Mike Foster has become ostracised by other kids because he belongs to an American family which doesn't own a gun, a concept they can't understand in their fear of imminent terrorist attack. While some, especially those of us born outside the US, have trouble grasping America's love affair with the second Amendment, it's a fact that there are towns where ownership of a firearm is already mandated by law. Kennesaw, GA is one example, with an exemption in the ordinance for those 'who conscientiously oppose maintaining firearms'. This story could easily have been set there.

Probably the biggest success of the film is the casting of Jake Moss as Mike Foster. Given that the story revolves around him rather than his father, it would fail if Moss wasn't up to the task. Fortunately he is, though I don't believe I've seen him in anything else before this. We see his frustration, not only in his words but in the silences that underline his inability to even own up to why he feels so out of place. The kid just wants to belong but he finds that he can't, not because of anything he is or does but because of what his dad believes. Every one of us surely remembers the power of peer pressure in school, so must see how tough Mike's situation is, even if it shouldn't be. In 1955, when Dick's story was published, the obvious equivalent to 'anti-P' was 'Communist'. As The Harvard Crimson wrote, 'In the fifties, the most effective sanction was terror' and 'Without a chance to clear his name, a witness would suddenly find himself without friends and without a job.' Clearly Mike's father isn't going to stand up for long.
While Moss is excellent as Mike Foster, the remaining key cast members, all capable Running Wild stock players, surprisingly can't back him up as emphatically as is needed. Michael Hanelin is capable as Bob Foster, his dad, the decision maker who he surely sees as the root cause of his problems, but he's not as emphatic or ideological as he should have been. Bob rationally rejects what everyone else accepts as a way for other people to make money, very reminiscent today in Microsoft lock-in or the peer pressure of iPhone upgrades, but even agreeing with everything he said, I didn't buy that he'd back it to the degree that he apparently has. Similarly, while Shellie Ulrich glares magnificently as his similarly isolated wife, her inevitable explosion is nowhere near as cathartic as I know she can deliver. The ever-reliable Michael Coleman is much too nice as the salesman at the Fosters' local gun shop, as he dearly needed a slimier edge. Only John Hartnett really found the right note to play in the smallest of these supporting roles.

It isn't Travis Mills calling the shots this time round, for a change. During 2013, while he concentrated on the 52 Films/52 Weeks project, he encouraged others to direct Running Wild films. Most prolific and most successful, given how After the Beep has done, is Kyle Gerkin, whose input Mills suggests I didn't cover enough last time I reviewed one of his films. He's right, because I didn't call out quite how effectively he made Belly of the Whale. That film built wonderfully with a great sense of place and feeling of tension that was unfortunately wiped out by some bad decisions at the end. The sad thing is that what he did so well in that film, which I didn't highlight, he didn't do anywhere near as well here. What's most ironic is that I found the frequently back and forth camera distractingly weak, when After the Beep was so utterly magnetic without a single camera movement. It's ironic too that I'm highlighting Gerkin here in what is surely the weakest of the three films of his that I've seen, though it was his debut as a director.

While he brought tough directorial decisions to After the Beep and consistently strong vision to Belly of the Whale, his biggest contribution here was his script, along with, presumably, the choice of source to adapt it from. As my rambling suggests, I adore the idea that a local production company working on a microbudget can bring a Philip K Dick story to the screen and Running Wild's successful track record of adapting public domain stories to contemporary settings makes it the perfect choice. Gerkin's script is solid, neatly updating Cold War antiquities to fresh modern equivalents. The opening classroom scene does everything it should, but it struggles to keep its passion alive. This should have been a biting film, but it relies too much on the audience finding its own particular engagement. I've seen Hanelin, Ulrich and Coleman blister both on stage and on film. They needed to blister here too and Gerkin needed to make them. It's a worthy script but it aches for a more passionate telling.

Foster, You're Dead can be viewed for free on Vimeo.


Travis Mills said...

Jake Moss was in one of the 52 titled Sherwood Anderson's I Want to Know Why, where he plays the boy who admires the basketball player. He's also in a short film that we shoot today called Cinders in the Dark, directed by his sister Mia Moss, another rising filmmaking at Running Wild.

Good review.

-Travis Mills

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Aha. The critic's curse of filmmakers not adding all their titles to IMDb... : )

I like I Want to Know Why a lot. I remember it as a relatively simple but strong 52/52 film.