I never know how to review movies when I've had a conversation with the director. Most of the directors I meet aren't big names. They're making movies that are a dream to them, usually living a marginal existence as they do it, and they're almost ALWAYS smart, dedicated, and film literate. I like directors. But for a few turns on the road, I would have been one of them. So if I have a conversation with a director, it tends to color how I review their work.
I mean, close friends I'm honest with because they usually ask me directly what I think of their movies, and I know that I can be honest with them. They know I know a lot about movies, and they're looking for constructive criticism and I give it. Significantly, I don't write about movies made by close friends in public, because there's no way to be objective. So I have a bit of a problem reviewing Small Pond (201l, directed by Josh Slates). Director Josh Slates isn't a close friend, but he's not exactly a stranger, either. Back in the 1990s, when I ran a boutique, cult-movie themed video store, Josh used to come into the store all the time. He was a teenager back then, and even then, he knew more about movies than just about anyone I've ever met. He moved off to go to film school, but it seems he never completely left Columbia, Missouri. This past weekend, he returned with his first feature, a movie about Columbia itself.
The story in Small Pond follows a Kirsten, a directionless twentysomething woman who has been sucked into life in her small mid-western college town. She's on the cusp of either embracing life as a townie or finding some way out. She doesn't have any ambition and she has a hipster disdain of most of the people she meets. And she's irresponsible and not entirely in control of her impulses. Her landlord is selling the house where she lives and he's told her that she and her roommate have the right of first refusal, should they want the house. She works a dead end job in a pizza parlor. She spends her nights in a drunken haze, dodging people she finds annoying. Lynn, her roommate is fed up with her, particularly her penchant for providing nothing to the fridge in the way of food (and eating what Lynn herself provides). Her other friend, Katie, she's known since they were kids, but Katie has become one of those New Age-y people that Kirsten can't really abide. Kirsten views Katie as a kind of tag along. She's short of friends, though, so she can't really afford to lose any. Kirsten also declines a promotion at her job--foolishly it turns out--that would provide her with medical benefits. When she has a ghastly accident late in the movie with some stolen whip-its, it provides her with an existential crisis of identity. The time has come, it seems, to finally take her life in hand...
I should get the negatives out of the way first. The main issue I have with Small Pond is that it's a little bit too festooned with in-jokes for anyone who lives in Columbia. It name-drops local landmarks in the dialogue in most scenes, and some of its shots are framed to do the same thing with what's in the background. I mean, it DOES have a nice sense of place. You do get a feel for what Columbia is like in Small Pond. I found it a little distracting. Not for the first time, I wonder if the people who live in LA feel the same way when they watch movies. More vexing is the fact that our heroine is unlikeable. You watch her give in to her impulses and you want to shake her and shout "What do you think you're doing?" at her. There's a method to this, it turns out, but it's not immediately apparent early in the film: There's a scene early in the film where Kirsten decides to eat some stuffed mushrooms that her roommate set aside that's an example. It reflects badly on Kirsten, depriving her of some measure of sympathy as she does it. Then the whole thing blows up in her face. This scene structure is repeated on a slightly larger scale late in the film, when she has her accident.
The positives mostly outweigh the negatives. Slates shows a nice command of film space in the opening scene unfolding under the credits, in which Kirsten walks to work. It may not be immediately apparent to viewers who don't live in Columbia, but the shot sequence gives anyone who DOES live here an idea of exactly where Kirsten lives. There's a coherent geography in the shot sequence and even if you don't know anything about Columbia, you still get the sense of a real place and a real progression through that space. Slates doesn't obscure any of this with tricky camera editing, either. This may be a super-low budget indie film, but that hasn't stopped the filmmakers from making a movie that's almost classical in its construction. They've eschewed the hand-held camera preferred by a lot of indie films in favor of specific, well chosen static shots and carefully considered traveling shots that serve the scene rather than call attention to themselves. The movie LOOKS great, too. It was shot on a Red One camera, but it doesn't look like it. This is a movie with bright, summery light and saturated colors. (In contrast, a lot of films shot with a Red are made to look monochrome and gloomy--Winter's Bone, which was also shot in Missouri, is a good point of comparison). Kudos to cinematographer Dave Anderson. This is mostly story-oriented filmmaking, in which the camera does not call attention to itself. It makes the movie go down easy. There's also an unexpected element of horror in this movie, which tickles my own sensibilities. The injury Kirsten Suffers from the whip-it is ghastly and its impact is all the stronger for being completely out of left field. Better still, the effects are seamless, something with which some low budget films struggle.
The performances in Small Pond aren't bad, though some of them are a little bit broad. It seems like there's an intent to render some of the characters in the film as types rather than as real people. Lynn (Susan Burke), for instance, is never anything other than the "uptight roommate," while other characters are slightly broad renditions of the kinds of people you meet in a college town. They're filtered through the slightly condescending point of view of a central character, and her attitude also tends to color how they're presented. Hari Leigh as Kirsten is charged with holding the screen for the entire movie, and she's mostly up to it. Alone of all the characters in the movie, she is provided with a character arc. She's a different person at the end of the movie, which is all for the good, given that, as I mentioned, who she is at the beginning is kind of annoying.
In any event, you can take all of this with a grain of salt if you like. I'm not sure how objective I'm being here, but I mostly liked Small Pond. I hope it gets picked up for distribution so it can be seen beyond the festival circuit and I hope it means that Josh Slates gets to make another movie.