Calgary Underground 2023 Review: DAD & STEP-DAD Barbeques The Male Ego To A Crisp
Not since wandering into Kevin Smith’s Clerks in an Oshawa multiplex in 1994 have I immediately glommed on to a micro-budget comedy as something that can be watched over and over again. Tynan DeLong’s Dad & Step-Dad is a small, but significant, revelation on the power of improv and DIY filmmaking. How performance and clever editing can run with a (deceptively) simple concept to an entertaining whole.
Two distressingly competitive guys in almost-but-not-quite matching goatees have planned a getaway to a cottage in Upstate New York to bond with their son. One is the dad, and the other is the stepdad. The environment is perfect to work out unconventional family dynamics. The brooks babble and the flowers are blossoming. The forest is the very picture of serenity. Even the soundtrack is flush with flowing dulcet strings.
Right from the first moment, where over-protective Dad Jim (Colin Burgess) pulls up in his Volvo and greets marginally cooler Step-Dad Dave (Anthony Oberbeck) sporting a charmingly dinged Subaru, the two men begin a hilariously toxic competition for Branson’s attention. Things start with firm handshakes and off-kilter smiles. They awkwardly joke that Branson must ‘decide’ who he likes better by the end of the weekend. Pre-teen Branson, who is played by a 30 year old (Brian Fiddyman), in an amusingly jarring element that works better and better as the film goes on, looks down and uncomfortable. Cringe.
While waiting for Mom, Suzie (Clare O'Kane), to show up Jim and Dave spar verbally over a variety of topics, from air mattresses to guitar playing, smoking a cigar, and the difference between true north and magnetic north. Deconstructing these ‘masculine’ topics down to the tiniest minutiae in hysterical oneupmanship, as Branson, almost a Hitchcockian McGuffin, is left almost abandoned in the corner or told to simmer down. Watching the two men continually adjusting and re-adjusting the heat-knob while picking at one another on who is the ‘grill-master’ over a few supermarket hotdogs is grist for the too many cooks mill. Parenting as bad performance art. The sharp editing here is perfect, comedy gold.
Dad & Step-Dad began its life a short series of rough around the edges improve on YouTube. Burgess and Oberbeck have been doing this routine for a couple years now and they have worked out (and significantly improved) their riffing from those shorts. You know that scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where Gary Oldman and Tim Roth lob questions, answered with questions as a metaphorical tennis match? That is the vibe here. It is matched to a jittery camera and passive-aggressive reaction inserts between Jim and Dave. Like a Christopher Guest movie without its requisite high concept, it grows on you.
Shooting the feature in chronological order, which is essentially a series of escalating situational set pieces, the filmmaking allows for a delightful and clever series of call-backs. This nearly belies the fact that all the dialogue in the film was improvised, with the camera keeping up to capturing a budding opposites-attract bromance, or a dissection of frenemies. Burgess and Oberbeck keep the light tension, and heavy laughs, coming over a tight 78 minutes.
If there is a through-line here, it anchors around Suzie, Branson's mom, Jim's Ex, and Dave's girlfriend. She clearly has a particular taste in men, albeit she divorced one and is possibly on the outs with the other. She is figuring it out. Meanwhile, these two bombastic goofs go at one another in hilarious passive-aggressive duels. Things peak when Dave and Jim attempt to explain how to masturbate to Branson, after discovering some ‘sexy fox’ drawings in his knapsack. In a rare act of agreement, both men decide a forest birdwatching sojourn is ‘the time’ for ‘the talk.’ Things go decidedly sideways in a sidesplitting high point.
From there, the film takes a bit of a poignant turn on ‘the real dudes’ behind all the bluster and fragile projection. Without losing its wit or edge, Dad & Step-Dad morphs into something a tad deeper to digress on the anxieties around roles of non-nuclear families and the always elusive definition of ‘normal.’ There are subtle undercurrents of frustration, sadness, and rage hinted during this entire scenario, which never undermine from the comedy, but round out the feature to something more than a series of gags and improve riffs. The performances here are deceptively deeper than at first glance, a welcome upgrade from the short film origins.
Both Jim and Dave are lost. They are trying too hard, only at the wrong things, and competitive dick-measuring is not helping. Be it building a relationship, or parenting children, we can laugh at this, these uncomfortable truths. Having a fat cigar at the end of a trying day, is not necessarily a bad idea. I look forward to spending more time with Dad & Step-Dad in the future, and I hope that some naive youngsters wander into a movie theatre and accidentally discover this little gem.