Sunday 19 April 2015

Bread and Butter (2014)

Director: Liz Manashil
Stars: Christine Weatherup, Bobby Moynihan, Micah Hauptman, Eric Lange, Lauren Latkus, Sean Wright, Dawn Didawick and Harry Groener
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
It's always a brave move for a film critic to venture into enemy territory and make her own picture; it's an even braver move for that picture to be a romantic comedy, the safest and easiest genre of all to skewer by anyone with a grudge. However, Liz Manashil, most frequently seen talking about mainstream movies on Just Seen It, succeeded with Bread and Butter in making an indie romcom that would be very tough to badmouth. The only people who might fail to find something of themselves in at least one of the quirkily broken misfits looking for love in this film will be those who identify with the wildly unrealistic movie star leads in mainstream romcoms. This is emphatically and rather pleasantly not one of those. Nobody finds themselves stuck on a blind date with Jennifer Aniston, nobody accidentally bumps into Hugh Grant and nobody has to decide whether to make do with Cameron Diaz when their dream girl looks through them. Manashil loves those movies but but wanted to make one that was believable and realistic.

And so she populated her cast with the sort of characters who would usually play the awkward best friend type who serves mostly to make the romantic leads look even more unblemished. These characters never get depth enough to worry about sexual tension, because awkward best friends are always asexual blobs; it's only the beautiful people who get to torture themselves about whether Male Model #1 or #2 is better in bed. If you watch romcoms but look past the focal characters to those awkward best friends who suffer from terminal uncoolness but would be fascinating people otherwise, this may just be your movie. Amelia Karinsky is the lead here, a young lady who reads books and wears a helmet while cycling. She has fresh looks but there are no magazine covers in her future. She's very aware that she's about to turn thirty and would like to lose her virginity before she gets there. Her lack of a boyfriend merely means pressure from her parents and even her boss, a life coach with no conception of boundaries.

Christine Weatherup is not the most recognisable face in the cast, though she's adding up a varied set of credits, but she's a strong lead who manages to find just the right point on the scale. She's socially inept, acutely awkward and very aware of how these traits are holding her back, but she's a long way from the stereotypical unhygienic dork. She's not Comic Book Guy, Suckup Science Nerd or Basement Dwelling IT Geek. She's refreshingly unclich├ęd, meaning that there's no simple solution to her situation and so depth to her attempts to find one. She's not a damsel in distress waiting for Prince Charming and she's not the caterpillar who doesn't know she can be a butterfly. She doesn't just need magic and she doesn't need a makeover. She just needs to do, to try, to live and our story is what happens when she decides to allow a border expansion to her small private world and take a chance on possibility. Of course, she doesn't find what she thinks she will, but she does find.
What I liked most about Manashil's script was how it refused to be conventional and make it about choice A or choice B. It seems to phrase it that way, with Daniel and Leonard coming into her life almost at once, suddenly two men for a woman who never had one so she can compare. It seems to set us up to believe that it will be Amelia and Leonard all the way, at least to the point when she realises that it should really be Amelia and Daniel, but it's worth much more than that. It seems to be yet another destination movie, but it's really all about the journey. This is the anti-romantic comedy, remember, refusing to cater to the convenient. You're not going to see twin posters, so tweens can choose between Team Daniel and Team Leonard; if someone does PhotoShop that, please add Team Charles for Daniel's gecko and let me know! This isn't about good or bad, A or B, right or wrong. It's not about a message, beyond, 'Hey, it's OK, girl.' It's as much about being comfortable with who you are and what you can be as it as about romance.

Having raised Daniel and Leonard, I really ought to introduce them. We meet Daniel first, because he's a regular client at Dr Wellburn's, where Amelia is the receptionist. Eric Lange is gloriously inappropriate as Dr Wellburn, in his way even more inept socially than our lead. He played another doctor in the Phoenix Film Festival opening night movie, Danny Collins, and it's easy to see why he lands such parts. Wellburn sets up Amelia and Daniel to date and both pliant characters fall uncomfortably into those roles. Bobby Moynihan, surely the biggest star in this movie after his eight years on Saturday Night Live, has a lot of fun with Daniel, who is the most grounded main character: a combination of thoroughly nice guy, grown up kid and professional social pariah. Asked about his parents paying for his therapy, he calmly suggests, 'They broke it, they bought it.' Like Amelia, he wants to do things but doesn't do them, and there's a sad acceptance to him that resonates: 'Hanging out with weird people makes me feel better about myself.'

Leonard Marsh, however, is one of those weird people. Amelia discovers his name and address in an old book she buys second hand, along with a host of engaging notes pencilled into the margins. They're not annotations as they're nothing to do with the text; they're more like stream of consciousness anecdotes and sheer circumstance helps Amelia to connect strongly with the hidden person who wrote them. Next steps are clear: go to Leonard's address and meet him. Amelia's decision to do this, as uncharacteristic as it is, is really the beginning of her journey but it doesn't turn out remotely how she imagined. He's an awkward character too, but he's awkwardly dismissive, interpreting her tentative impulsiveness as an act of stalking. Then again, he's self-treating depression without any apparent science, which makes him an alive but often broken soul. His eccentricities are wild: nothing can be new because old equals relevant, he lives in a guest room but never touches its floor and he's unable to commit to anything.
Amelia stirs up their lives just as they stir up hers, but it's Amelia who's the catalyst for change. While we can't fail to compare Daniel and Leonard, especially when each of them gets a dance scene with Amelia, it's really Amelia who's pushing things forward. She starts to date both of them, just to see what happens, but of course they soon meet and the awkwardness ramps up from there. Given that the foundation here is awkwardness, it's bizarrely comfort that sells it most. Amelia is getting less comfortable with her life as she approaches thirty so decides to do something about it, but both Daniel and Leonard tell themselves over and over that they're comfortable with who they are. It's as we start to doubt them that this picture moves forward. Daniel is calm and stable in the extreme; he wants to do things but they're all outside his comfort zone. Leonard lives in the moment because he's afraid to live anywhen else; this makes Amelia comfortable because there's no pressure, but it depresses Leonard because he can't change.

How this all manifests itself in the film is a combination of well-written dialogue and capable acting, most obvious on the faces of all three leads. Christine Weatherup acts with her face far more than her body, as if she's always trying to show simultaneously what she feels and what she believes others want her to be. It's telling that this decreases as she becomes more comfortable in who she is. Bobby Moynihan, for the majority of the film, is the picture of calm, so accepting of everything in his life that he lets those around him provide the emotions. However there are points where Amelia stirs that pot enough that his face has to step in and join the fray; those moments are all the more magic because they have to be drawn from him. As Leonard Marsh, Micah Hauptman is great at smiling and looking both wrong and scared all at once. Everything he is shows through his face and that goes double for the inner conflict of a man who wants to change but has a phobia about doing so.

Bread and Butter was the first film I saw at this year's Phoenix Film Festival and it was a great way to kick things off. It's light and fluffy and easy to watch, but with depths for those who want to explore them. It's familiar in that it's a romcom with one girl and two guys, but it never settles for the usual way out of any situation, let alone the usual way in. It's well-written in the way that indie features should be but so often aren't. It's cast from faces both fresh and familiar; I've seen a few of these actors before and appreciated their work but didn't recognise any of them here. That holds true for Moynihan, who I know for The Brass Teapot rather than Saturday Night Live; but I heard his name often during the festival, even from people who hadn't seen the film. It's also a personal piece, with Manashil claiming 30% of it as autobiographical, with characters amalgamations of herself and friends. All this is good news and it leaves 70% left for her next film, which ought to be entirely expected after the success of this one.

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