Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 05, 2019 6:04 pm 
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A young couple back together again briefly in an intimate gem

There are always surprises at festivals and this little gem is a big one. It's a splendid film that marks the third feature by its director and the debut of the amazing writer Meredith Johnston, who also costars brilliantly as the protagonist whose voice she, obviously, perfectly incarnates. She is Leigh, a young woman with bleached, pink-blush hair whose clipped speech and ironies mask worry and hurt. Call this Mumblecore without the mumble: no words, not even silences are wasted. The biggest surprise is how it creeps in and touches you. On top of that, the film is really quite beautiful, with lovely cinematography of a Wisconsin park in summer (the trees, the flora, delicate greens) and a now uncommon boxy 4:3 aspect ratio images that create a claustrophobic intimacy for our unaccustomed eyes.

The premise is a laughably obvious one: a too-close brief reunion of an old couple. It is, as mentioned, summer. Leigh has a bit of cabin fever. We see her in an opening sequence wandering in a bright amusement park, but she begins the day with a cigarette out front of the family house talking to a garden ornament pink flamingo. The thing is, she has quit grad school to take care of her bedridden mother (Stacy Parish),. Mom can talk normally and sit up in bed to read, but she's on a drip and tight regime of meds and we understand she's mortally ill. Johnston the writer doesn't do backstories. We learn only well along that Leigh and Cam (Rene Cruz) dated in high school and through most of college, and there's no talk of diseases, majors, or dates.

Each morning Leigh goes for a run. She runs into the tall puff-headed boy, Cam and they exchange banter. Later it seems she and her mother had long planned a camping trip and it's agreed she will go, a nurse will be arranged for the days away, and she only has to find a substitute companion. At the last minute she asks Cam, who evidently has nothing to do and says yes, but looks surprised. Why would she want to do this? How could he say no? He brings along his fat little pug dog, Goose. His big tortoise he leaves in his back yard.

Millennials do banter, but not, unless forced, emotions or straight talk. Of course I don't know this, but the dialogue in Pet Names seems so real and natural it makes me fell like I've gotten a slice of this generation's most intimate life. Here "JR's" summary for the SF Indiefest: "Falling into old patterns of familiarity is easy for the duo; what’s hard is facing deep-seated wounds between them that never healed. Between losing Cam's dog, tripping on mushrooms, drunken nights by the bonfire baring their souls, making up dumb songs, and jealous arguments, the 'vacation' becomes a constant guessing game of whether or not the two will find themselves back together, or never speaking again."

The comparison to early Kelly Reichardt no doubt refers to her 2006 Old Joy; also to the fact that we may have an indie-risen genius director on our hands. Every scene seems charmed. The "old patterns of familiarity" mostly prevail. Key thing: in the park, Leigh and Cam sleep together in a very small tent side by side, not touching, not kissing. But he sleeps shirtless and his skin beckons. Later they wake up lying arm in arm. A little caress in this warm Wisconsin night closeness is probably the most intimate and heartbreakingly touching thing I'll see all year. The dumb song is indeed awful. But to make up for it Leigh does an a cappella rendition of "Saint James Infirmary" that's haunting and lovely.

They play pickup games underlining that they're no longer a couple (I guess). At a rest stop enroute they think he's caught a girl's eye when it turns out she was eyeing Leigh. Losing Goose for a while looks like the movie's manufactured crisis. It soon ends but reconnects Cam with two girls, one of whom is cute. His leaving Leigh to hang out with them one morning leaving Leigh to wake up alone is the real sticking point that finally brings out Leigh's, then Cam's, well-kept pain: "You wrecked me," she says. The magic of the mushrooms and the whiskey, the soft greenery and sweet quiet and tent is suddenly shattered and they have to go back home. The suspended idyl and its shattering may not seem much but it's a lot, and of course nothing is "resolved," but this moving chain of tremendous trifles provides the satisfaction of art and kind of cauterizes the pain. Some who've written about Pet Names, though, say it's about facing death.

If you were at the SF Indiefest today, February 5th 2019, I'd say rush to the Roxie theater to savor its lovely smallness on the big screen. But I have good news for everyone: Pet Names is available on Amazon Prime any time, anywhere.

SF INDIEFEST showtime: Tue, Feb 5 9:15 PM Roxie Theatre

Pet Names, 75 mins., debuted 10 Mar. 2018 at SXSW (Austin), showing also in Oct. 2018 at Mill Valley and Philadelphia and 10 Jan. 2019 at Rotterdam. It was screened for this review as part of SF Indiefest (5 Feb. 2019). It has received numerous favorable reviews, including ones by Sheri Linden in Hollywood Reporter and in The Playlist by Andrew Crump.


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