Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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ADAM ZBAR: MERMAIDS AND MANATEES (2018) - SF INDIEFEST

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BJ AVERELL, TYLER MACNIVEN IN MERMAIDS AND MANATEES

Silicon entrepreneur parenting

Can there be such a thing as a cautionary joke? If so, this is one. It's also a play movie, the toy of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (Adam Zbar and Tyler MacNiven). Their premise was to make a movie about the worst thing that could happen to them. They both had young babies, so the answer was for their child to be left in irresponsible hands. Those hands are of a friend who's a failed actor. In the film he's called Benji (BJ Averell) The cautionary twist is that what prompts this irresponsible act is putting business success, AKA money, by way of meeting on a boat with some high profile investors for seven hours, over an old friend and one's own child, whom the entrepreneur-dad leaves together. Fine, but this is a one-note shaggy dog story, and as a fan of the absurdities of app entrepreneurs so wittily detailed in Mike Judge's HBO series "Silicon Valley," I expected something more substantial than this bagatelle. Call this mumblecore for millionaires: a vanity project.

Any film however frivolous has a life of its own, and so after a while we begin feeling sympathy for the failed actor. Unreliable or unstable though he is, he did come for "boy's weekend," and not to be left alone for seven hours with somebody's seven-month-old baby. He begins to seem to us like a wronged person and we feel sorry for him. And then for ourselves, to be saddled with the non-stop monologue that expresses his plight.

There is further irony (or is it just convenience?) in the fact that the director of this trifle, Adam Zbar, is a friend and business partner of Tyler MacNiven, who plays Rich, the baby's careless (and rich) father, and BJ Averell, who plays the loony actor left alone in the big house and saddled with the baby, while he gulps an impossible number of bottles of good wine, inhales an unspecified amount of choice weed, and pops a suicidal number of unknown pills, is a former friend of MacNiven's: the two competed successfully as a team in an episode of "The Amazing Race" twelve years ago.

Averell has to carry most of the short feature alone with the baby, improvising. He improvises, that is; the baby can just be a baby. Averell has some good moments, acting silly and abusing substances while performing skillful baby-wrangling. But it's a bit much to ask us to watch googoo-gaga baby talk and riffing recitations of a rhyming list of all the countries on earth (which impressed me, actually) and a song from "HMS Pinafore", and on and on and on. If he was Robin Williams maybe this would have worked. It also would have been genuinely scary. Since, funnily enough, the baby is perfectly happy through all of this - and it's a relief there is no visible child abuse going on - it's hard to feel the danger Rich's unwise decision has created as a real threat to his baby's welfare, after all. The film title is an allusion to one of Benji's many little teaching points for Brooke, the baby, which she would get a lot out of if she weren't too young to understand.

Zbar & Co. aren't particularly good at managing practical details such as how Benji deals with the pizza delivery boy if he hasn't any money or the logistics of the narrowly averted tragedy at the end and Benji's escape. There is a warbling woodwind by way of score that's a good accompaniment to Benji's goofiness, but it grows repetitive and grating when it goes on through the entire film. The film also fails to engage seriously with the real practical complications for the inexperienced of minding an infant.

Vicki Larson wrote an article in the Marin Independent Journal about the circumstances behind the making of his film from which I have drawn for this explanation. The filmmakers haven't gotten around to putting up a page for this film on IMDb yet.They're going to have to. It's theirs, and it's out there now.

Mermaids and Manatees, 70 mins., debuts at the 2019 SF Indiefest, and was screened for Indiefest for this review.

SF INDIEFEST SHOWTIMES: Sat, Feb 9 2:46 PM, Wed, Feb 13 7:01 PM ROXIE THEATER

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