Sundance: Trash Fire, Indignation, Joshy, & Sing Street


Trash Fire

Trash Fire: Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. (Suburban Gothic, Excision) takes a deep dive into serious family dysfunction with his third film, Trash Fire, a comedy-horror-romance co-starring Adrian Grenier (Entourage) as Owen, a full-time narcissist and miserabilist, and Isabel (Angela Trimbur), as his long-suffering girlfriend. When we first meet Owen, he’s moments away from verbally haranguing his therapist (Sally Kirkland) for literally falling asleep on the job. Before then, however, he opens up about his suicidal tendencies, tendencies he expected to indulge when his parents died in a horrific house fire years earlier. Cowardice, however, got the better of him. He escaped the house fire unscathed while his younger sister suffered burns across 80% of her body. Despite obvious strains on their relationship (i.e., his monumental douchebaggery, her deeply, borderline delusional unrealistic expectations of Owen and their future together), Isabel’s surprise pregnancy throws an initially reluctant Owen to take a closer, better look at the douchebaggery (his) interfering with his romantic life. Before long, Owen grudgingly agrees to Isabel’s demand that they visit his only two surviving relatives, his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), and reconnect/reconcile with them before they make any plans for a more permanent resolution to their non-married status and raising their unborn child. Reconnecting with the long-abandoned Pearl, however, proves to be the least of Owen’s problems: His grandmother’s religious fanaticism places her firmly against Owen and Isabel (though mostly to their living in sin). With the aptly named Bates (see, e.g., Bates Motel) at the helm, however, reconciliation isn’t a probable or likely outcome. The opposite turns out to be more than likely. That old, never truer adage about families (“They f*ck you up”) proves all too true in Owen and Isabel’s case. The sins, errors, and omissions of the past make a violent, bloody comeback. Bates deftly ramps up the tension via dramatic irony (moviegoers typically know more than the characters) while maximizing the material for the blackest of black humor.

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Indignation: Many have tried and many have failed to bring award-winning novelist Philip Roth’s novels to the big screen. The “many” here refers to the producers, screenwriters, and directors who saw cinematic potential in Roth’s singularly insightful fiction about the Jewish-American experience in the latter half of the twentieth century. Roth’s 27th novel, Indignation, a 1950s-set romantic drama, saw the inside of bookstores only six years ago, but if writer-producer-director James Schamus’ adaptation is any indication, it’s one of Roth’s weakest novels – or at least one of his least adaptable. Using a framing device that was tired and worn out five or six decades ago, Indignation centers on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a super-smart, budding intellectual who receives a full scholarship to a small liberal arts college, Winesburg College in Ohio. For Marcus, college in faraway Ohio gives him the perfect opportunity, not to mention the perfect excuse, to absent himself from the presence of his controlling father, a kosher butcher. College also gives Marcus, one of a few, select Jewish students at Winesburg, everything he can handle academically, but a pretty blonde non-Jewish girl (because it’s always a pretty blonde, the unquestioned epitome of female beauty), Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a girl, as they once said, with a past. In Olivia’s case, however, her past doesn’t involve socially unsanctioned indiscretions as much as the societal and cultural stigma attached to an earlier suicide attempt. While the romantically inexperienced Marcus tries – and often fails – to reconcile his feelings toward Olivia with the initially unacknowledged prejudices and biases of his ’50s’ era moral code, his mother gives him an ultimatum that has less to do with Olivia’s religious faith or ethnic background and everything to do with the aforementioned stigma associated with mental illness. Lerman and Gadon give relatively strong performances as the potentially doomed romantic couple, but Schamus’ decision to route the narrative via a framing device and faux-poetic voice narration, a device present in Roth’s book, but handled clumsily by Schamus here (a surprise given his nearly flawless screenwriting reputation). In Schamus’ hands, it’s never feels organic or essential to the story he (or Roth) wanted to tell. Apparently lifted almost verbatim from Roth’s novel, two long, awkwardly directed dialogue-heavy scenes between Marcus and his nemesis, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), sink whatever little momentum Schamus otherwise develops when he focuses exclusively on Marcus and Olivia.

Joshy: “The bro-dudes on a weekend bender” premise gets a new, if not entirely original, spin in Joshy, Josh Baena’s follow-up to 2014 Life After Beth, a not entirely successful zombie-romance (the “not entirely successful” part comes from a misogynistic subtext/undertone that Life After Beth seemed to embrace rather than reject outright as it should have). A semi-all-star comedic cast, including Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) as the title character, Adam Pally and writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth, Listen Up, Philip) as his best bro-dudes, Ari and Adam respectively, Nick Kroll as Eric, Joshy’s ex-neighbor and not particularly close friend, Brett Gelman as a late addition, and Jenny Slate as a potential romantic indiscretion for the already married Ari. Attempting to recover from the sudden, shocking end of his engagement to Rachel (Alison Brie in a cameo), Joshy gathers his friends for what should have been his bachelor party weekend in Southern California (Ojai to be exact). Away from the constraints of civilization, Joshy and company indulge their inner ids, over-consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs (mostly, but not exclusively marijuana) over the course of the weekend. With Eric as the virtual ringleader, they begin their “celebration” in a local bar, lose money in a local casino, and otherwise prove themselves incapable of behaving in an adult, mature manner (at least for one weekend). Their bro-dude behavior, however, blocks or deflects the real issue they refuse to discuss: Joshy’s fragile emotional state and his recovery (or lack thereof) from his recent, heart-wrenching loss. Baena mixes and matches tones, occasionally to well-earned comedic effect, but just as often missing the mark, substituting crude, vulgar humor when all else (i.e., his imagination) fails. Luckily, the who’s who of contemporary comedy, otherwise known as the cast, more than make up for the shortcomings in Baena’s screenplay or direction. When the “here’s your cathartic moment” makes its obligatory third-act appearance, moviegoers will likely sidestep the question of whether that catharsis has been earned by everything that proceeded that moment (short answer: It doesn’t).

Sing Street: John Carney’s Once, a romantic drama that deftly integrated in-film musical performances, seemed like a once-in-a-career, unrepeatable crowd-pleaser, spawning not just a hit soundtrack, but an Oscar win for Best Song and more recently, a hit Broadway show as well. Carney’s follow-up, Begin Again, failed commercially and critically, in large part because it tried to duplicate the Once template too closely (the lack of memorable songs didn’t help either, of course). Carney’s latest, Sing Street, doesn’t fall into the Once trap, shifting the focus from a doomed or semi-doomed romance to a 1980s’ set origin story for a fictional, high school band. Crammed with a mix of ‘80s New Wave standards and reasonable facsimiles thereof (the latter crafted into near perfect pop) – the band at the center of Sing Street goes through four or five musical stages, increasing their musical skill set with each change – Sing Street turns on both nostalgia for a bygone musical era (though, of course, nostalgia plays a significant role here) and the classic underdog story that practically proclaims “crowd-pleaser” in bright neon lights or a theater marque. Centered on Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a 15-year-old with a love of music and an unrequited crush on Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a worldly-wise (to him) 16-year-old girl with dreams of moving to London and starting a new life. First, though, Cosmo has to navigate the harsh realities of ‘80s Dublin: Financial pressures lead to Cosmo’s removal from private school and his forced admission into a public school (still Catholic, however, given that the separation of church and state, a pillar of American constitutionalism, doesn’t exist in Ireland). Those same financial pressures push Cosmo’s parents into perpetual conflict while Cosmo’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), a once promising student turned college dropout/stoner/slacker watches on with barely concealed contempt. Brendan also serves as Cosmo’s de facto musical mentor, introducing Cosmo to what he considers “good” music via a drool-worthy vinyl collection. A younger sister basically stays out of the way and consequently, out of the film. It’s Raphina’s presence at a nearby foster group home that gives Cosmo all the motivation he needs to start a band (he promises her a role in their upcoming video). But with first love, there’s usually heartbreak and given Carney’s writing/directing credit, a bittersweet, life-lessons-learned ending seems all but inevitable. Except it’s not in the case of Sing Street. Carney opts for something entirely different, wish-fulfillment writ large by the time the end credits roll. It’s not entirely earned, but by then, the vast majority of moviegoers won’t care. They’ll be completely swept away by Sing Street’s considerable charms, from a top-to-bottom talented cast to the songs created and ably performed by the same talented cast.



About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.