Instant Gratification
Reality-Based Independent Dramedies
Megan Peters

4 (or 5) Recent Reality-Based Independent Dramedies

There are a ton of independent comedic-dramas floating around Netflix Instant these days, and it is pretty easy to find one starring an actor of whom you might be quite fond, but not always as easy to find one that is really worth your time. What I’m going to do this week is rank my personal experience of watching five of these films, so you know a bit what you might be getting yourself into when you settle in to it that “Play” button. They are all filled with either familiar friendly faces or fantastic up-and-comers, and even the weakest one isn’t without its charms. The first one I’ll get out of the way pretty quickly: you should definitely watch 1. Frances Ha (2013, Dir: Noah Baumbach) starring Greta Gerwig in the title role, but I’m not going to rhapsodize over its myriad strengths as it has been covered at length on this site (see Jordan’s spot-on brief and Sam’s end of the year commendation ). Just go watch it—it is by far my number one pick for this category.

2. Short Term 12 (2013, Dir: Destin Cretton)

Like Frances Ha, this tiny indie stunner garnered a lot of praise early on last year, and I’m thrilled that Netflix has finally made it available on Instant, as it might now get the attention that it deserves. “Short Term 12” is the name of the residential treatment facility for troubled teens where the bulk of the action of this film takes place, and the supervising staff headed by Grace (a luminous Brie Larson) has their hands full navigating the rocky terrain of imperiled youth. When Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the home, Grace finds herself in over her head, recognizing some of her own history in Jayden’s plight, and she soon sees some of the demons of her past rising to the surface, and threatening to dismantle the future she has been planning with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). This film is filled to the brim with beautiful performances, incredible writing, and a heart-smashing realness that, even when it tilts just a bit past control, is genuinely moving. Larson is just incredible in her role and is one to watch out for in the years to come, as are the cast who populate the home with very real stories of triumph and trouble. It also smartly avoids some of the off-putting quirk that tends to make this type of film more divisive than it might be, and if we are being frank, this is probably the least comedic of the films I’m recommending here. The humor is there, but frequently it is used to illuminate and crystallize the sadness.

3. Drinking Buddies (2013, Dir: Joe Swanberg)

Like Short Term 12, this movie for the most part avoids the quirky indie tendencies that can push away the hipster-allergic types. This isn’t to say it isn’t filled with hipsters, because it is, so take this for what it is worth, but Drinking Buddies is also a stellar exercise in character-based filmmaking. There was allegedly no script, just the outline of the barest bones of a plot—the actors apparently even named their characters!—so what follows in the film is based on the improvisational skills of the four major players and their character developments. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together in a brewery, and it is easy to see the kind of flirtatious friendship that often grows in a work-place environment that is literally drenched in alcohol (anyone who has worked in the service industry, for instance, will recognize these characters instantly). They spend their lunch hours together, they hang out and play pool—they are also pretty much always drinking. But the thing is, Luke is in a long-term relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) a younger and less-inebriated school teacher, while Kate has been seeing the older, and more worldly, Chris (Ron Livingston), though she seems reluctant to commit the way he would want her to. When the two couples spend a weekend at Chris’s Michigan Lakehouse, Kate and Luke seem content to stay at home and drink, while Jill and Chris are intent on taking in the natural environs. The crossed lines begin to stir up both relationships, as well as Luke and Kate’s friendship. This is a pretty quiet flick, very focused on these characters and how they approach their alliances, so if you are looking for a spelled out plotty drama, this won’t be a good one, but damnit if these characters and their relationships don’t feel so very grounded in real experiences. For every time the improvisational nature of the film seems forced or rigged, there are four times when the very real performance will knock you about the head a bit with recognition.

4. Best Man Down (2012, Dir: Ted Koland)

If the lack of plotting and dialogue might drag a bit in Drinking Buddies, Best Man Down suffers from the opposite problem. Ostensibly a film about the messiness of life, the plot is too planned out, with too many explanations and far too many on-the-nose outbursts. This one has been panned a bit on Rotten Tomatoes, and I read most of the reviews, and while I recognize where those complaints are coming from, perhaps I was just in a really generous mood, but I kind of like this one despite its many shortcomings. Scott (Justin Long) and Kristin (Jess Weixler) have to miss their honeymoon. You see, Scott’s life-long good-time buddy Lumpy (Tyler Labine) took his best man role a bit too seriously and ends up dying out in the desert on the night of the wedding. Rather than abandoning his body, Scott spends their honeymoon funds to ship the body back to Minnesota to arrange the funeral, but the couple hits a snag when trying to locate Lumpy’s girlfriend Ramsay to break the news to her. What they don’t know is that Ramsay (Addison Timlin) isn’t Lumpy’s girlfriend, but a 15 year-old girl struggling to get out of her mother’s (Frances O’Connor) home and away from her toxic meth dealing would-be step-father (Evan Jones). The film works too hard to make some of these connections, and there is some dialogue that would’ve gone a long way with taking some of the old “show-don’t-tell” advice to heart, and everything wraps up just a smidge too perfectly to even feel remotely real, but there is something about Lumpy, and about the strained beginnings of Scott and Kristin’s marriage, that feels pretty vibrant. There are some real moments of life here, that end up in a way making the movie feel a bit worse for the wear—it is always difficult to see glimmers of what a film could’ve been if it could only get out of its own way. Weixler and Timlin are both great (there is a scene in the car where Weixler’s expressions are priceless) but this is really Labine’s show, and it is too bad that the focus is about him, rather than on him.

5. The Lifeguard (2013, Dir: Liz W. Garcia)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll pretty much watch any movie that Kristen Bell is in, regardless of quality. She has been one of my favorite actresses for a while, and I’m dying to see her get a quality role from someone other than Disney or Rob Thomas. It is much to her credit that this film survives at all, and the cast is pretty much what makes this story so compelling in any way, because it is also one of the most self-indulgent films I have ever seen. It is saying something that as I was thinking in my head “oh my god shut up who cares” I wasn’t turning the movie off. Leigh (Bell) runs away from her New York City journalist job to hide at her parents’ home in Connecticut and get her old job back as, you guessed it, a lifeguard. As she stumbles around, facing the fact that her life hasn’t lived up to the promise of her youth, she reconnects with her high school chums, the closeted Todd (Martin Starr, who also deserves more good roles) and the high school vice principal Mel (Mamie Gummer). As they tool around playing at reliving their youths, they befriend a local trio of high school punks (I use that term in the lightest sense—they skateboard and smoke some pot, but are otherwise innocuous), Leigh finds herself drawn to sixteen year-old Jason (David Lambert), despite the warnings of her friends. Leigh is certainly troubled, there’s no doubt about it, but there should be some very real consequences for the things that take place in this movie—well, there are some consequences, but they don’t feel like the right ones. The most real that this movie gets is when it begins to examine Mel’s marriage—her fears about being a mother are compounded by her youthful exploits and her husband’s sense of overly-grounded adultness. Not to mention the amount of trouble that a high school administrator should face for the things that Mel both does and witnesses. I’m being coy here, but it is pretty easy to read between the lines, and I actually find this film kind of reprehensible in the way it handles both its major plotline and its resolution. This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments here that work (there are, mostly due to the acting), but those moments feel a bit cheaply earned, and this largely due to Leigh’s inflated sense of self; her self-destructive need to act out doesn’t have the grace of Frances Ha or the weight of Short Term 12, and it mows down everyone in her path, so when she finally wakes up, it feels like too little, too late.

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