Friday was a dead night at the Dances with Films film festival (now in its nineteenth year of bringing the best of the independent film world to the heart of Hollywood), but in a good way. The two “dead” films that screened that night were Dead Dad and Detention of the Dead.
Dead Dad, the West Coast Premiere by writers Ken J. Adachi and Kyle Arrington, explores sibling angst when their father dies. Detention of the Dead, a “Breakfast Club meets Shaun of the Dead” tale by writers Rob Rinow and Alex Craig Mann, pits oddball high school students against a horde of zombies.
In Dead Dad. when their dad dies unexpectedly, siblings Russell, played by Kyle Arrington, Jane, played by Jenni Melear, and their adopted brother, Alex, played by Lucas K. Peterson, come home to tend to his remains. Stubbornness, pride and impulsiveness, complicated by internal conflicts they don’t want to share, repeatedly keep them from resolving their dad’s final disposition. They are able to agree on one thing: nobody wants to keep the ashes, but they don’t really want to part with the last physical manifestation of their Dad, either.
Dead Dad provides surprises on two levels. First, the quality and then, how it was made.
As for quality, this was amazing. One expects “relationship” movies to be somewhat like soap operas. But the filmmakers avoided typical soap opera mistakes. No over-the-top scenes, spot-on dialog or unnecessary histrionics; they understand “show don’t tell” and they even “show” in a subtle way.
The inciting incident of the plot is the death of the three sibling’s father. There are all kinds of ways this could have been handled crudely. Instead, Russell knocks on his dad’s door. There is no answer. We see empty bottles of alcohol, pill bottles, and a hand hanging limply in the air. Beautiful. Just what is necessary and nothing more.
Another example: While trying to decide what to do with their father’s ashes, the three siblings go on a drinking binge. Alex, jokes that the modest cardboard box in which their father’s ashes are being stored is now being used as a coaster. Jane, immediately, without any dialog, jumps up to remove the drink from the cardboard box and quickly dries it before it stains.
We know, without dialog, that she really loved her dad.
Quality is also shown in production values, editing and acting. The performance by Jenni Melear was particularly notable, as her character has the most complicated arc, and she is wonderful to watch, reminding me of a young Sharon Stone, but prettier.
The second surprise was how it was made. The dialog is so good, the acting so believable, the cinematography so well done that I never would have guessed that it was filmed from a rough outline script, over five weekends, with actors recruited from friends of the writers, with major scenes improvised.
How could this happen?
According to Adachi and Arrington, they began shooting with an outline because they just wanted to get the project started. Then, Adachi explained, “Our actors brought so much to it, we kept rewriting the script between the weekends.” Perhaps there’s a lesson here about iterative nature of the creative process. A script is never really done and when the shooting begins. It should continue to evolve. The script is done, when the film is in the can (or nowadays do we have to say when the bits are on the disk).
I don’t like relationship movies, but this one was so good, I had to make an exception. This film deserves to be widely viewed. It also convinced me not to leave a mess behind for my kids.