Tuesday, 7 July 2009

[211] Lovely By Surprise (2007)

Out today in the USA is Lovely By Surprise, an intelligent, imaginative indie flick. Bypassing a traditional theatrical release, the film has been released on DVD (and through on-demand services like Netflix), after a few isolated screenings and festival appearances over the last 2 years (including an award-winning turn at Seattle, where it won a Special Jury Prize).

Lovely By Surprise is a modestly-budgeted (reportedly around $1 million), charming and ambitious cousin to mainstream-indie films like Stranger Than Fiction, or the collected works of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, especially). The narrative intertwines three strands, bending the viewer's conceptions of time, reality and causation. Marian (Carrie Preston) is an author, struggling with her first novel, The Neverything - whose characters, Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), live an innocent, isolated life on a land-stranded boat. Parallel, and initially unrelated, is the story of recently-widowed car salesman Bob (Reg Rogers) - who struggles to keep his job, and engage with his traumatised, withdrawn daughter.

Marian takes the advice of an old tutor (Austin Pendleton), who suggests that, as her story lacks tension and direction, she kill one of the two characters. Unfortunately, Humkin - portrayed by Marian as a self-aware character - doesn't take too kindly to this development, and breaks free of the novel, and the author's control. He strays into the real world, and runs straight into Bob's life.

Lovely By Surprise
zips along in an appealingly light manner. First time feature writer-director Kirt Gunn is astonishingly assured, and successful, in the film's plotting and structure, with the flights of fancy and warping of narrative logic coming across as natural, entertaining developments. For the most part, it avoids the needlessly obscure, quirky, or indulgent excesses of consciously post-modern cinema (it runs a refreshingly, compellingly brief 98 minutes).

Key to this is the strong central cast. Preston, Chernus and Rogers deliver charismatic, memorable performances, without relying on mawkish sentimentalism, or over-worked schticks. Rogers, in particular, imbues his initially comic role - where he spends more time talking potential customers out of buying a car, than giving them the hard-sell - with a vein of tender pathos and uncertainty. Humkin, in nature a more abstract role - a man-child, often simply dressed in Y-fronts, who talks in a manner that is halfway between childlike murmuring and highly poetic non-sequiturs - but Chernus brings a lot of warmth and depth to such an on-paper caricature.

Lovely By Surprise is a solid, impressive first film. It works with themes of fiction, imagination and memory - with a focus on relationships, and personal experience. These aspects are drawn out gently, without bludgeoning the viewer with epiphanies, conclusions or answers -- provoking thought and discussion as the Tom Waits-soundtracked credits roll. It is well worth seeking out. Read more about the film here, or read about the film's innovative, unconventional mode of distribution here.

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