Jeff Winner's Satellite might be a fine film if it could decide what kind of film it wanted to be. At times, it works as a swooning romantic fairy tale, the kind where no gesture is too big and no line of dialogue too pseudo-poetic; other times, it tries to strap its feet to the ground and stay within the confines of New York City realism. While I think most fairy-tale romance movies could do with a bracing shot of reality to keep them from floating away, the genre graft here is unsuccessful.
Satellite details the relationship of Kevin (Karl Geary) and Ro (Stephanie Szostak). They meet one night in a bar after Ro follows (i.e. stalks) Kevin off a subway and almost immediately fall into a crazy, heedless love, the kind that makes you look at the stars and think deeply profound thoughts while entertaining the idea of casting off all responsibilities to spend every waking moment with this lovely person next to you. That, in fact, is exactly what they do: after making a 'dare' pact (if one of them dares the other to do something, the dared party has to do it), they both quit their jobs and run off to live together, keeping themselves going via thievery. It seems that, through this radical act, they both hope to discover something bigger than themselves; the question is, what exactly are they looking for?
Part of the success of a film like Satellite rests on one's opinion of the characters and the actors playing them. When you boil it down, this is essentially an offbeat chamber drama; thus, it's critical that we sympathize with the people in the chamber. This, then, is the first point where Winner lost me. Kevin and Ro alternate between being unique and compelling characters and being childish nitwits. A prime example of the latter is the aforementioned 'dare' pact. Such a pact is, at its core, a children's game — a way of regressing and eluding responsibility for one's actions. It works at first, but as the film develops, the immaturity at its heart makes it difficult to take the two seriously.
Of course, I realize that what I'm complaining about is intentional. Any film that opens with someone on a New York City subway reading a book entitled This Is a Fairy Tale is, on some level, attempting to work as a children's fable. The voiceover narration, which features a young girl spouting lines like, "The way I see it, we're all like stars in the sky," drives this home. Furthermore, part of Winner's point is the consequences of walking away from the responsible, 'adult' world and what one gives up to attempt an idyllic existence. But Winner tries to have it both ways, and it's the sense that he can't commit to his film's preciousness that drives me further away from caring about Kevin and Ro.
I'd hoped Satellite might take some cues from its executive producer and supporting actor Larry Fessenden, whose Habit and Wendigo are excellent examples of how to blend the fantastic and the everyday. Winner, though, isn't interested in mixing the two tones. Rather, he keeps them separated, so that a woozily heartfelt scene will immediately follow (and be followed by) a scene of low-key naturalism. Rather than combining the romance and the realism, he contrasts them, which makes them clash like argyle socks with a blue suit.
It also doesn't help that the realistic scenes don't work at all. There's a playfulness evident in even the wispiest of the fairy-tale scenes that makes them easy to like; in particular, the scene where Kevin first dares Ro to shoplift something (a dress that looks really good on her) has a shameless charge of energy about it that is missing from the more grounded parts of the film. (The fact that she and Kevin are speaking in broken Spanish, complete with accurately translated subtitles, is part of the amusement.)
Conversely, when Winner tries to bring realistic dimensions to these characters, about all he can cook up are hoary clichés; revelations like Kevin never being able to live up to his father's expectations or the obvious big secret that Ro is hiding come off not as character traits but as transparent dramatic ploys. (On the former, a character actually delivers the line, "Nothing Kevin ever does is good enough.") Again, I know that, since this is intended as a semi-fairy tale, stock tropes are meant to be Good Enough. But they're not – it just feels like lazy screenwriting.
Satellite is the toughest kind of film to dislike. Its heart is in the right place, and it means well. It also has some excellent music courtesy of indie-rock band Calla, and Geary and Szostak do as well as they can given the ping-pong characters they have to play. It says something, though, that the voiceover narration includes what could be the film's own eulogy: "They want me to know that it's okay to be silly or to make mistakes, but never to be careless. The hard part is knowing the difference." If Winner had been less careless in respect to his film's tonal shifts, it would be okay for him to be silly and make mistakes. He, like his characters, gets defeated by the hard part.