Dance Party, USA is not the rollicking good time that the title might suggest. Now I understand that this might lead you to believe that I did not enjoy the film. That perhaps feeling duped by the film's seriously misleading title, I tossed the disc into the garbage, fuming over the film's preposterous lack of dance party fun.
Okay, so there is actually one party in the film, but it is decidedly not a dance party but it is the kind of party we've all probably been to at one point or another. It's the kind of awkward house party where everyone shambles around making stilted conversation and eventually something gets broken. Movies always try to make these parties look more exciting than they actually are. Except in this film, the party is pretty damn accurate, and that mood doesn't really let up even after the party stops. In this film, the awkward house party is pretty much a way of life.
With or without an actual dance party, this is still actually a really good movie. I don't know if I can go so far as to call it great – I honestly doubt it will stand the test of time – but it's damn good and it's only a little over an hour so it won't kill you to watch it. In fact, it'll probably be good for you, although it might be an acquired taste for a lot of viewers.
Aaron Katz operates within a genre known colloquially as "mumblecore." This is really kinda vague, but if you've ever seen a film by Andrew Bujalski or Joe Swanberg then you have an idea of what we're dealing with here. If you haven't, well, there's really not much to explain. As weird as this sounds, part of the charm of mumblecore is that not much really happens. We're usually treated to a bunch of fairly inarticulate people sitting around talking – mumbling, if you will – about the kind of bullshit that you and I might sit around talking about after we've had a couple drinks.
I realize I'm probably making this sound pretty awful, but maybe there really isn't a way to describe this genre and make it sound appealing. Mumblecore can be extraordinarily self-indulgent, but as a low-budget, lo-fi art form it's also endearingly populist. Aaron Katz and a bunch of his film school buddies made Dance Party, USA for next-to-nothing with very little equipment. And it shows. The film is definitely rough around the edges, but this can really be part of the charm if you just learn to see the flaws as part of what makes the film so awkwardly and honestly human.
See, that's the thing about Dance Party, USA. It's not really a film I can talk about in stilted critic-speak because it's not a film made for stilted critics. There is a certain art-house charm and sensibility to the film, but it appeals to me on a much more earnest level than that. And it's refreshingly free of the so-called "indie quirk" that seems to be slowly leeching into the mainstream these days. Self-indulgent does not equal pretension. Sure, it might be self-indulgent to have these non-professional actors sit around and ad-lib their way through long dialogues about their personal lives, but there is nothing pretentious about it. The film doesn't try to throw around its weight and instead really earns the emotional impact it carries. Your mileage may vary, but I thought the film was quite touching in parts.
This can be attributed largely to the screen presence (or refreshing lack thereof) of the aforementioned non-professional actors. Cole Pensinger as Gus, the film's male lead, delivers a surprisingly nuanced and sensitive performance. His character is almost immediately unlikable. The film opens with him telling his buddy on the bus about some vile sexcapades (which actually figure in importantly later in the film) and over the course of the next several minutes he really doesn't do much to endear himself. But between Katz's script and direction and Pensinger's performance, you come to understand his obnoxious, mysogynistic personality traits are just a front masking a character who is really just a sensitive if still immature kid.
Whoa, big revelation there. The guy that talks up his sex life and acts like a dick in public is actually a sensitive soul. Okay, so Katz isn't winning any points for creativity, but the thing is that Gus feels real and not like some cliched creation for the screen. Same goes for Jessica, the charming female lead played by Anna Kavan. Where Gus comes off as awkward and maybe a little dumb, Jessica is articulate and poised and intelligent. Kavan has the chops and the charm to be an indie film starlet, but somehow Dance Party is the only film she's acted in if IMDb is to be trusted. She brings the depth and humor you'd expect from a professional actor while still maintaining the kinda clumsy, exploratory charm of a non-professional. Honestly, if I ever had the chance to direct her, I would not pass up the opportunity.
The less said about the film's plot the better. Like I said, it's only 65 minutes long so almost anything constitutes a spoiler alert. What I can tell you is that the film dwells in very familiar territory: the sensitive jerk, the cute girl who has to be won over, a high school keg party, et cetera. This is the stuff of the high school sex comedy. In a way, that is kind of the film Katz has made, except all the sex is only talked about and there isn't all that much comedy. Dance Party, USA has a lot of small pleasures to offer, many of which can be found in the film's empty spaces and silences. The characters may do a lot of talking, but the things they don't say are more powerful than the things they do. It's not a fun movie, per se. It's pretty sobering, in fact. It has a happy ending, I think, but not one made for the movies. It's the kind of happy ending you find in life where, after the credits roll, people still go on not saying what they really mean and generally screwing things up. It's all just one big awkward house party.
Dance Party, USA is available as part of an awesome two-disc set from Benten Films. The first disc is Katz's second feature, Quiet City, which I believe received very positive reviews, though I haven't gotten around to watching it myself yet. There are some nice special features – commentary tracks and all that jazz – and the packaging is really cool. Worth picking up if you're into that sort of thing.