Review: STANLEYVILLE, Too Much Quirk Spoils the Proverbial Broth
I'n sure many of us have had that moment (maybe several times) when we want to throw in the towel and walk away from our lives: our jobs, our disappointing partners (and maybe kids), who just seem to be stuck in the rut that you need to get out of. But not all of us are then approached by an odd stranger offering us an orange Habanero SUV in exchange for participating in a contect whose details are kept hidden. So perhaps not all of us can find a rather bizarre path to enlightment via balloons and sea shell transmitters.
Stanleyville, the feature debut of actor/filmmaker Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, is a film that falls quite squarely in the 'weird and quirky' category: perhaps slightly fantastical, definitely absurd, and trying extremely hard to find a wavelength of strangeness to keep the audience guessing and engaged, with its oddball scenario and disprate characters, each living in their own fantasy world. Perhaps it will depend on the individual viewer, but the result falls short of success.
Maria (Susanne Wuest) witness a bird crash into the window behind her desk at work. Noone else takes the slightest notice. At home, her husband is a jackass and her daughter a brat. Marie has had it; she dumps her purse in the garbage and aimlessly wanders a mall, now in possession of only the clothes on her back. A strange man who calls himself Humunculus (Julian Richings) tells her about a competition for which she has been selected out of apparently millions - a contest she never entered - in which she can win a fancy new car. But Maria doesn't care about the prize: for her, this is a sign from whatever spiritual deity is above her, and she will gladly follow to whatever strange place it leads.
Joining her are the expected assortment of (mostly) oddball characters - one who claims to be the son of a successful businessman, a sometime actor, a man deeply entrenched in a health product pyramid scheme, and perhaps the only 'normal' person, a woman who's in it for the car. The tests they are given have no value in and of themselves to check whether anyone is worthy - how many balloons can someone blow up and pop in one minute? Who could write the best anthem for the world? - and are arbitrarily awarded a victor. There is little cameraderie and plenty of animosity between these strangers, some of whom have clear goals and others - well, only Maria seems to be convinced of a higher purpose to this bizarre game.
A 'quirky' or oddball film can come out of a oddball story, or out of oddball characters, but having both at the same time has a tendency to cancel each other out. Stanleyville is trying very hard to be strange and weird that it often ends up being a little tiresome. Wuest is terrific as Maria; despite the ridiculous situation, her belief in it, however misguided, manages to keep her story as its heart, while its soul feels somewhat missing in its earnest but perhaps too forceful efforts to be weird, it often seems, for the sake of it rather than with any particular cohesion.
The film is not without its charms: the use of the single location intensifies the growing claustrophia felt by the characters are they fiund themselves trapped in this game they voluntarily began. Maria's answer to one of the competitions, and the connection to some sort of god-like figure beyond the walls, leans into the deeper themes of the quest for meaning and enlightment outside materiality. As Felicie, the only 'normal' person in this game, Cara Ricketts plays a figure so seemingly in control that you both enjoy and fear her. And Richings is always a treat; but everyone is trying so very hard, it's difficult not to cringe a little as just a few too many jokes fall flat.
Stanleyville tries so very hard for that quirkiness edging on the fantastical and dangerous, but only partially succeeds; what would have been an excellent short ends up being less than the sum of its parts, despite some moments of wonder and a strong central performance.
Stanleyville opens exclusively at the Metrograph NYC on April 22nd.
- Maxwell McCabe-Lokos
- Rob Benvie
- Maxwell McCabe-Lokos
- Susanne Wuest
- Cara Ricketts
- Christian Serritiello