I don't know if you're like me and have become sick and tired of independent films with their cute casts of eccentrics and the even cuter child that leads them all to enlightenment. For something supposedly independent, these movies are all beginning to look and sound alike. To be fair, this judgment is based on those movies which make it out of the festival circuit with some sort of distribution deal, and distributors are only going to be interested in those flicks they think are going to be able to make them some bucks at the box office.
There's the rub, isn't it? If filmmakers know that they need to make a certain type of film if they want to have a hope in hell of making their money back, don't you think that they are going to make a movie that a distributor wants? How is that any different from what would have happened if they had a studio putting up the money for the flick instead of raising it on their own? Sure they don't have some executive producer foisted on them by Universal or whoever telling them what to do, but they are still making a movie based on the dictates of what someone else thinks people want to see.
Aside from a few directors, like Kevin Smith, who have had the balls, luck, and talent to carve out a career for themselves to make the movies they want to make, the majority of real independent movies will probably never make out of the festival circuit and show up in your local multiplex. They might get occasional screenings at art house theatres or second run cinemas, but aside from that, the only place you'll probably see most of them is in the privacy of your own home on DVD.
One that you might want to keep you eyes open for that's being released on DVD at the end of April, 2008 is The Guatemalan Handshake directed by Todd Rohal and distributed by Benten Films. Not only does it give new meaning to the word quirky, it also does a fine job of ripping a strip off the eccentric/cute child formula so beloved of reviewers and distributors alike. This movie will never be dammed with the faint praise of "heart warming movie of the year". (Just how many of those can there be in one year anyway?)
Local misfit and human doormat Donald Turnupseed vanishes in the confusion following a massive power outage in a small town somewhere in middle America. The last we see of him, aside from a few flashbacks and daydreams by other actors, is him walking away from his father's small electric car at the beginning of the movie. In his wake he's left behind a pregnant girlfriend, a widowed father, two half-brothers, and his best friend — an eleven-year-old girl named Turkeylegs.
Although we never really find out why Donald walked away from his life, over the course of the movie we are given enough of a glimpse into what his life must have been like to see that he had any number of reasons for doing so. It tells you something that the only person he's able to communicate with is an eleven-year-old girl, and when you meet his family and some of the other residents of his small town, you quickly find out why.
While most independent movies have given us a rather rosy view of eccentricities, The Guatemalan Handshake paints a slightly more insidious version. Donald's brothers and father are barely this side of human and spend their time humiliating him whenever possible. In a flashback we see the three of them leafing through a family album filled with pictures of Donald looking ridiculous as a young child and laughing themselves silly at his expense. When Donald finally cracks and steals the album away from them and leaves the room, his father follows him — not to offer comfort as you'd hope, but to ask him why he insists on spoiling their fun, and if they could have the book back. His girlfriend isn't much better, as she doesn't seem overly concerned about Donald's whereabouts. She spends the majority of the movie concerning herself with beating her father in the demolition derby that seems to be the community's ultimate yearly sporting event.
Turkeylegs is the only one who makes a concentrated effort to try and find Donald, and wonders what could have become of him. She even tries to file a missing person's report with the local police, but they don't want to be bothered. But Turkeylegs isn't going to lead any of the adults around her into having soul-searching, heart-warming moments of self-awareness; they're all far too self-absorbed for that. You end up feeling sorry for this eleven-year-old girl who's been dumped by her mother for the summer in this strange community where no one seems to give a damn about her. Except for Donald and he's vanished.
Although the acting in the movie isn't the greatest, each of the actors are able to do what is necessary to make their parts work for the movie. That they all come across as being from too small a gene pool without going over the top or resorting to the stereotypical antics one gets in a mainstream production out for cheap laughs is a good indication that the director was very specific about what he was trying to depict.
While the majority of the characters are objects of ridicule, there comes a point in the film where you sit back and realize how little they actually have, and that which makes them ridiculous evolves into a level of poignancy. Almost in spite of yourself you actually begin to feel sorry for them and the emptiness of their lives. To be able to achieve that type of result requires a very delicate touch from the director, and that Todd Rohal managed it says a lot for his skills.
I think a true measure of a movie's "independence" comes when you ask yourself if you could imagine a mainstream studio making this movie and getting the same result. In somebody else's hands, The Guatemalan Handshake would have ended up being merely ridiculous, with none of the underlying pathos that makes it worth watching.
The edition that will be for sale at the end of April is a two-disc set that comes with some really good features. One that I especially liked summed up what independent movie making is all about. There was one scene in the movie where Turkeylegs is using a rope swing to jump out into a river, and then bathing in the river in an inner tube. In order to get a camera onto a boat on the river, the filmmakers had to sneak it down the river past private houses, through downed trees, and over a small waterfall until they got to the desired location where the rest of the cast and crew were lurking in the bushes waiting for them. If that doesn't sum up the spirit of the independent filmmaking, I don't know what does.
The Guatemalan Handshake is a refreshing change from the formulaic rut that independent film seems to have fallen into. If you want to see a movie that will genuinely defy your expectations then this is the one for you. It will definitely give you something to think about.