When a film at a festival is labled "experimental," you're never quite sure what you're going to get. You might sit through 90 minutes of wild visuals, or you might get two hours of people sitting at a table having a conversation; it might be an intolerable waste of time -- but then again, you might just stumble upon something really cool. While I don't tend to fill my fest viewing schedule with experimental film, I always try to catch at least a couple of movies so-labeled. Apart From That, the first feature effort by Mount Vernon, Washington directing duo Jennifer Shainin and Randy Walker, was listed under the "experimental" category, and had I not happened to meet the filmmakers and heard them talking about it, I might not have added it to my schedule. But I did meet them, and we did talk, and I was intrigued, and -- most fortunately -- I enjoyed the film and am therefore grateful to the serendipitous forces of the film gods that led me to see it.
Apart From That opens at a party, where the camera moves through the crowd, giving us little snippets of conversation and glimpses of characters. Then the film splits off to follow three different stories connected by the narrowest of threads on the surface. In that sense, the movie is built around kind of an anti-structure; whereas we are more used to indie films that take what appear to be divergent pieces and then tie them together in some clever (or cloying) way, Apart From That simply unravels the threads of the party, letting us follow the three stories without worrying about being ever-so-smart or cute or giving us a nifty surprise twist at the end. It's kind of refreshing, and a lot like life. After all, if you went to a party, you wouldn't expect that everyone there would have connections to each other, which is why in films, that whole "and here's where we tie it all together" routine often feels a little forced. That's not to say the film lacks a theme. On the contrary, the lack of a forced effort to interweave the stories serves to better keep the focus on what lies beneath: The commonality among all these divergent people is their loneliness and desire to be loved, liked, appreciated, and needed.
There are three main story lines in the film. In one, a banker (Toan Le) has to fire the father of his son's best friend, and then must deal with the effects of that decision on his relationship with his son. What rings true about this story is the interaction between hurting parent and hurting child: The father, like many adults, attempts to distract his son from the matter by taking him on a road trip. The son (Kyle Conyers), who is deeply distressed over the impact his father's decision will have on his relationship with his own best friend, isn't about to let dad off the hook that easily, though, and his persistence in wanting to know the whys and wherefores of his father's decision forces his father to address his own guilty conscience.
The second storyline concerns Leo (Tony Cladoosby), a Native American man living on a reservation with his family, and how he deals (or doesn't deal) with the impending death of his best friend. This storyline, as we learned at the post-show Q&A, came about after Cladoosby was cast in the role of Leo. As the directors talked with Cladoosby about real-life responsibilities on the rez, especially as they relate to death and dying, this part of the script evolved to focus more on the character of Leo and how he avoids dealing with the fact that his friend is dying. Cladoosby, like the rest of the cast, is not a professional actor, but you'd never know it from watching him onscreen.
My favorite storyline was the third, about Ulla (Kathleen McNearney), who rents a room from Peggy (Alice Ellingson), an eccentric older woman with a penchant for exhibitionism, in a house filled with knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. Throughout the film we hear Ulla whispering mysterious things like, "This is the sound of Peggy snoring" and "This is the sound her refrigerator makes." We come to understand that Ulla has made tape after tape of the sounds in Peggy's house. It's an interesting quirk that ends up revealing far more about Ulla's character and motivations than any bit of overdone exposition. Peggy, for her part, is a sad and lonely old woman, unliked and neglected by her grown daughter. Peggy reports fake fires to 911, so she'll have the company of the volunteer firefighting crew for a few minutes. It seems funny at first, until you realize how terribly sad it is. It takes until the end of the film for Ulla to really understand Peggy and her loneliness, and Peggy to appreciate Ulla as more than a roommate and source of income, but when the payoff comes it is beautiful, sweet, touching -- and real -- in a way that few filmmakers ever capture.
What most marks Apart From That as an experimental film is the filmmakers' style. Shainin and Walker worked both together and separately on the script until they had what they wanted. Then as they headed into production, they told their cast of mostly inexperienced actors that if a line of dialogue didn't feel right or natural, to throw it out or change it. They filmed on an two-days-on, one-day-off schedule, so that they could do rewrites of the script based on the direction the actors were taking the film. They shot each scene three times, not for redundancy, but to get three completely different takes on each scene so they could pick and choose their favorite bits. Because of this, the film has an organic, patchwork quality to it that works amazingly well. The stories and the characters feel real, as if you are a fly on the wall observing their relationships and interactions. There is some excellent storytelling going on here, and it will be really interesting to see what Shainin and Walker come up with next; this directing duo is worth watching out for in the future. In the meantime, if you get a chance to catch Apart From That -- don't miss it.