Wednesday 6 May 2015

Grace of a Stranger (2014)

Director: Alex Thomas
Stars: Jaron Druyon, Jessalyn Carpino, James Hesapis, Clay Johnson and Jennifer Sandoval
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
I first saw Grace of a Stranger at last year's Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and it immediately found a hold. Watching it afresh at this year's Phoenix Film Festival at the frustrating time of 9.05am, I found that it still played well, even though it felt, at the time, like a surprising choice to kick off the set, given that it runs a deceptively relaxed eighteen minutes. A hour and a half later, I understood why and appreciated the skill with which the Home Grown Shorts set was programmed. Grace of a Stranger worked well as the first half of a pair of bookends with Thrasherland, another human interest journey with a skateboarding connection. It's also a hopeful film, so fits at the beginning or end of a set. That it was inspired by a true story adds a little oomph, even if it was written by an inmate of the Arizona State Prison Complex while a student in the Arizona Prison Creative Writing Workshops. Clearly something else went wrong for Aaron Keel after the events adapted to the screen here finished and, sadly, we're not told what that was.

The story follows two men. Aaron is a homeless man who has 'been in kind of a bad way' but who is now turned around and looking for a stable future. He's finding it tough, as we see when he cleans himself up in a Co-Op restroom and applies for a job; the manager can't even process his application because of the lack of contact details: no phone, no e-mail, no address. Unfortunately, given that the only thing he owns that doesn't fit in his rucksack is the skateboard he uses to get around and that's destroyed by a car after he hits a rock in a parking lot, he needs more than hope to move forward. Eventually he finds Bert at BLX, a skate shop which he co-owns with Zack, his unseen partner, who thinks up all sorts of rad (or bad) ideas when Bert's not there. The contrast in problems is clear and so is the fact that Aaron clearly can't afford a new board and Bert can't afford to hire him. The key moment is when Aaron leaves BLX without the board he clearly thought of stealing and Bert finds him a replacement for free, hence the title.
Aaron Keel is real and his two page short story, Acts of Kindness, first published in Rain Shadow Review, the Prison Creative Writing Workshops’ literary journal, can be read for free online at the film's website. It highlights how much director Troy Hollar, who heard the story read aloud on NPR by Erec Toso, a U of A English professor who also teaches workshops behind bars and set Aaron the task to write a piece about an act of kindness, took a few liberties with that story when adapting it to film with Andrew Newburg. It's actually a better, more nuanced story when stretched out from two pages of prose to an eighteen minute short film and it's brought to life very well indeed. It's the dialogue that sells it best, along with the actors who deliver it. Matt Letscher, who plays Bert, is a very experienced actor who many will recognise from a string of major TV shows, like Scandal, The Carrie Diaries and Boardwalk Empire. The awesomely named Nipper Knapp isn't, but he's also up to the challenge and the two of them nail the dialogue.

Hollar brings in a variety of other details and themes to flesh out the bones of Keel's story, which is brief to the point that it could be described as an anecdote. He establishes Aaron's decency through the street mutt that follows him everywhere; he has nothing but he still feeds the dog. He turns the breaking of the skateboard into an accident rather than an act of karma. He uses jazz as an odd but believable bonding experience for the two men, using a Charlie Parker shirt as the catalyst. And he gives the whole story an ending too, as Aaron can give a little bit back to repay Bert's act of kindness, rather than just change his anger into hope. The film is better for the presence of all these elements, even though they're not part of Keel's original story. Hollar doesn't even really retain the core of the story, which is that kindness trumps anger or positivity beats negativity, instead focusing on the idea that there's always hope, even if it's an unimaginable distance away, which is why I much prefer the film to the story, even if it's not as true.

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