Wednesday, May 04, 2011

FILM REVIEW: Stuck Between Stations (@Tribeca Film Festival)

This was a romantic drama that takes place during one intense night where a soldier on-leave comes to terms with his estranged father's death and a graduate student reaches the tumultuous climax of an adulterous affair, all while forming a deep connection that's years in the making.

The key to romantic films that take place over the course of one day/night is great chemistry. The lead characters need to have an intense back-and-forth. Take One Fine Day for example, Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney are at each other's throats for half the film and then they slowly start to see the parts of the person they were too busy judging to see from the beginning. Then there's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, where Kat Dennings and Michael Cera are actually forced together by a mixture of peer pressure and desperation. They're reluctant to be paired off, but they ultimately realize that they're more perfect for one another than they are for their unworthy exes. And then there's Can't Hardly Wait, where Lauren Ambrose and Seth Green get locked in a bathroom during a party, hash out why they stopped being friends, and then act on their dormant attraction for each other. A little animosity with an undercurrent of curiosity are vital ingredients for creating a well-rounded love story of how two people can manage to fall for each other in less than 24hrs. They have to go through the usual ups-and-downs of a relationship in hours as opposed to months, and they have to make it seem completely plausible.
Needless to say, this sort of film has been done before and with several different set-ups. Sometimes with two couples (The Breakfast Club), sometimes with one couple (Before Sunset), and sometimes with a couple that doesn't even meet till the end (Sixteen Candles). The question is, how did co-writers Sam Rosen (who also starred) and Nat Bennett manage to set their film apart from the rest. For one thing, it's not really all that wacky of a plot and the characters are a lot more realistic and damaged than your usual cookie-cutter leads. As I stated before, Casper is a soldier who's come home for his father's funeral. He's not only weighed down by the regret of not knowing his father, who previously forbade him to join the army, then secretly supported him, but also survivor's guilt, being the luckiest and least physically scarred or damaged of his platoon. Meanwhile, Becky (Zoey Lister Jones) is introduced to us as a grad student who can't finish her thesis because her notes and laptop were stolen by her lover's wife, a woman who also happens to be the head of Becky's program. She's screwed herself royally, both academically and romantically. Neither of these characters are in the best mindset when they encounter each other, and it's during a night of wandering through their old neighborhood that help them come to terms with the choices they've made in life.
That sounds pretty heavy, but I swear it's not. It doesn't get heavy until the last ten minutes or so when we discover at what point Becky decided to say "fuck it" to life and Casper commiserates with tales of his own trauma. The rest of the film, however, is full of nostalgic wonder and adolescent shennanigans, from smoking pot at the playground to riding his bike's handle bars to a makeshift indoor hipster circus to goofily dancing in costumes on public access TV. It's like for one night they reverted back to high school and he finally got the chance to go on his dream date with Becky, the one that got away. One of the best scenes are when Rosen bashfully tells her every detail he remembers about her, even down to her coat that smelled like hash, while Jones struggles to separate him from the multitude of classmates she ignored, only to realize that he was the crybaby who refused to be consoled by her and stole her scented pen. It was a healthy dose of humiliation and sweet, chaste exhibitionism. Those longing looks and the lack of follow-through really added to their chemistry, without making it seem like a let down.

What was also appreciated was the fact that the characters were just as interesting apart. Casper wasn't your a-typical soldier, suffering from PTSD or waking nightmares, transformed into an introverted, "mysterious" guy. He was another version of the modern day soldier: not afraid to fight, but not confident enough to be called a hero. I liked that they were both flawed. It wasn't like the guy was a fixer-upper, someone the female character had to improve. She had her issues too, with self-esteem and motivation. Neither was an easily insertable archetype: cheerleader + geek. Newcomers Rosen and Jones did an amazing job of captivating the audience through these characters, Rosen with his shy-but-spontaneous schtick that charmed the ladies and Jones with her sharp tongue and scathing brush-offs, channeling a less self-loathing and intense Janeane Garofalo.
As a whole, the film became less of a romantic dramedy about two people falling in love and more about the current state of our generation and what's stunting our growth. And it would seem the answer to that question is: us. We're the ones standing in our own way. Casper could've had Becky a long time ago had he just asked her out again. Becky could've had a normal boyfriend instead of self-sabotaging herself and going for a man who could destroy her academic career. Casper could've made amends with his dad before he passed, but instead he decided to be stubborn and ignore his letters. Becky could've recovered her laptop sooner if she just had the balls to go get it herself. Ultimately, it's like she said after dropping a bomb about an unfortunate incident during a backpacking trip through South America: "You can either choose to be a victim in life or to not. Either way it's up to you."

As for the ending, I can understand why some of the audience members were hoping for insight as to what later happens to the characters a la Can't Hardly Wait, especially since Casper had a very last-hurrah kind of vibe about him, like maybe his luck would run out soon. But I agree with co-screenwriter Rosen, who said that the point of their promise to meet again was so that they'd both have hope that it would happen—that he'd survive his last year in Iraq and that she wouldn't further self-destruct. Here's to getting out of our own way.

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