In many ways, a lot of American Indie cinema is becoming as formulaic and predictable as its big budget cousins. Be it a Baumbach jam, a Swanberg swing or a doozie from the Duplass', there are clear expectations that you're going to get something that may be engaging, but often more of the same - some 20 or 30 something going through a crisis, only to find their inner strength in order to make their life/relationship/status/acceptance of their sexual orientation not quite so shit.
These "Sundancey" films, joined by a slew that now prem at SXSW, can be really exemplary, but often they feel like they're trying too hard to be aloof, making due with the budgetary limitations by trading for melodrama.
Just as an action film can be really exceptional if it toys with our expectations and crafts something unique within a conventional form, so to do some of these conventionally unconventional indies rise above the fray. Such is the case with Charles Hood's Night Owls, a kitchen sink drama set in a house with a very nice sink indeed.
The storyline is streamlined and effective - a girl brings a guy home on a date, things get frisky and then take a turn for the dark. Hood's script, co-written with Seth Goldsmith, deliberately teases out the rest of the narrative, treating the audience with a modicum of respect that's too rare these days. These teases could easly be tedious, but here they're effectively parsed out, keeping one engaged in the narrative while fully embracing that this is almost entirely a film about character, not plot.
Some more famous names show up, including Arrested Development's Tony Hale in a delightful turn, and a bearded Peter Krause known to many from his years on Six Feet Under, and Children's Hospital's Rob Heubel. But the bulk of the film surrounds the interactions between Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar.
The film rests entirely on the shoulders of these two performers, and they're at times exceptional in finding the right line between downright nastiness and genuine tenderness. Suffice it to say there's a complicated dynamic between the two, and the film goes to great lengths to pull these characters in wild directions, the audience sliding back and forth as we ride out a night together with these two troubled individuals.
There's a tacit undercurrent about collegiate sports that for this non-American made the events even more appalling, where an $800 bottle of wine owned by a school employee is considered normal. Making millions for assisting with post-secondary extra -curricular activities may be mind boggling to some outside of that system, but the film's narrative skips that particular debate while still looking at some of the more obsessive, perhaps even unreflected-upon madness that surrounds collegiate sports.
This aspect of the storyline is all context and background, however, to a far more universal tale of the dangers of falling for myths, either about oneself or those around them. It's a film where the characters have been telling themselves stories to mask feelings of inadequacy and fear, and when confronted with something even more scary or genuine they both recoil and eventually embrace the possibilities of unguarded feelings.
The constrained setting and one-bad-night temporal restriction works extremely well in this context, a perfect example where the form of the film's execution matches the content that swings between suffocating and comforting. Hood's direction is effective and precise, the mood of the characters always readable without slipping into farce.
Night Owls is a film that often goes right up to the edge with its character's behaviour, constantly pushing right to where as an audience you'd simply loose any engagement with them whatsoever. It's violence is at times brutal, its psychological warfare bordering on the devastating. Yet at the same time moments of tenderness or intimacy are both believable and contagious. It's the beautifully orchestrated Yo-yoing of emotions and behaviours that makes the film so engaging, where we are pulled right to the end of the string without the line ever snapping.
A confident, effective piece, Night Owls may not be a hoot, but it's a film that earns every emotional beat it drums out. With commendable performances and assured direction, this is the cream of what these Indie films can present. This is a film that may at first appear to be simply one among many of similar temperament, yet for audiences who will to stick through the night with these characters then, they're sure to be treated to something both emotionally and narratively satisfying.