Urban Scarecrow, the second feature by up-and-coming Seattle director Andrew McAllister, is a poignant look at the dismal life of a Seattle teen who, in the aftermath of his mother's death six years earlier, has been barely scraping out an existence in a fleabag motel with his loser father. If you've ever gone through a really crappy time in your life -- one of those times when the thunderclouds never seem to stop hovering directly above your head, and it seems no matter how hard you try, you're floundering desperately just to keep your head above water, Urban Scarecrow might just speak to you.
The film's protagonist, Wes Downs (17-year-old Peter Richards), is a scruffy adolescent who, like the proverbial scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, is stuck with a pole up his back, unable to move or to see clearly how to change things. His father, Frank, a struggling stand-up comedian who barely keeps the roof of their dank and depressing motel room over their heads with a series of temp jobs, dreams of success and a better life, but takes little palpable action to achieve it. Frank has big dreams, but seems unable to generate the forward momentum to act on them. He occasionally works up the energy to nag Wes about enrolling in an alternative high school, but otherwise provides no guidance or discipline to get his son back in school. Wes and Frank have been suspended in this existence, like scarecrows in a field being endlessly pecked at and shat on by crows, for so long, that neither of them seem to know how to break their inertia and make a new way.
Then along comes Vicki, who moves into the hotel room next door with her young daughter Lilly. Vicki is a likeable enough character, in spite of her somewhat distressing habit of allowing her small daughter to hang out with unknown adolescent boys (and apparently leaving her unattended overnight while she sleeps with Frank). She's just lonely and desperate enough to find a sad sack like Frank attractive, and before you can say "follow the yellow brick road," Frank and Vicky are having hot breakfast dates at a seedy diner and Frank is dreaming of making a new life. Wes, meanwhile, must content himself with long distance phone calls to his girlfriend, who moved to the country, hanging out with his equally feckless friend Derek, and combing the woods for treasure with his metal detector. When he starts building with Legos, we wonder just what's up with this man-child, but the payoff that reveals what Wes builds with his Legos is lovely and bittersweet.
Cinematographer Megan Griffiths captures well the area around Aurora Avenue in Seattle, where the film is set. Aurora is one of those streets you'll find in most towns, an ugly thoroughfare riddled with storefronts, strip joints, and cheap diners. In gem-like Seattle, Aurora stands out like the ugly cousin shoved to the back of the crowd for the group wedding photo. It's an area that many Seattle residents drive through with doors locked, a sad and lonely old highway on which you'll find a greater than average ratio of homeless guys, addicts, hookers, seedy motels -- and lost boys like Wes, cruising through the misery on skateboards. In Urban Scarecrow, McAllister examines, sometimes uncomfortably closely, a slice of Seattle life that a lot of folks here with their 6,000 square foot waterfront homes and Hummer SUVs would like to ignore: The lost, the lonely, the miserably depressed, and the poor struggling to pay even the rent of a shithole like the motel Wes calls home. There are real people like Wes and Frank all over the place, scraping by on the scraps of society, largely unnoticed unless they do something wrong to get our attention. Yet McAllister manages to avoid wading too deeply into the maudlin; he sets up his simple story neatly, and ends it on a note that hints that Wes finally gets the pole out of his back, picks a path to follow, and maybe even finds his way.
McAllister has a good eye for telling his stories visually, he picks interesting characters and lets us peek into their worlds, and his films have a genuine and honest feel to them. Urban Scarecrow is a nice second effort by McAllister (whose Shag Carpet Sunset had folks comparing him to the likes of Kevin Smith) and worth a watch. We'll be hearing more from this director in the future.