Dependent Children

With Friends like this: Elise Neal and Simon Baker-Denny in Restaurant

Question: You know you're watching a microbudget American indie when:

(a) You spot a boom mic at the top of the screen, and you still can't understand what that guy in the leather jacket just said.

(b) That guy's face has a distinctly yellow cast; two seconds later, he's blue.

(c) The actor playing that guy's best friend reads lines like a porno actor.

(d) That guy's best friend just got shot.

(Answer: Duh.)

Of course, the beauty of low-budget indies is that, at their best, they transcend or even exploit their limitations, giving the finger to those who equate scope with importance. In celebration of that spirit, the Dockers pants people are presenting their second Classically Independent Film Festival, which also travels to New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Chicago; locally, it is cosponsored by IFP North and will run for four days over two weekends at Walker Art Center. (In another festival event, director Carl Franklin will introduce his intelligent racial/crime drama One False Move Friday night.)

Broken Vessels and Restaurant, both on the docket here, suffer from most of the ailments listed above, with the exception of bad acting. Broken Vessels feels like the work of yet another Hunter S. Thompson disciple infatuated with the metaphor of driving while intoxicated. The twist here is that the boozy driver is an L.A. paramedic. He saves other people's lives while destroying his own. Medic, get me 60ccs of irony--stat!

Played by Todd Field, this superpsycho ambulance driver is living la vida muy loca: He parks in a cemetery every day to drink beer and smoke heroin. He saves a rave kid from ODing and then confiscates all the drugs at the party for his own stash. He helps an old man at home and then steals his VCR. He visits his surrogate father every day to give him a morphine injection.

He also corrupts his new partner, played by Jason London. As we learn through a series of Easy Rider-like drug sequences, this kid has some demons of his own. (Note: When it comes to trippy drug sequences, or giant lizard fights, a film's budget actually does matter. Trainspotting, this is not.) The film is eager to deliver a message, which we get in boldface at the end. The trouble is, the buildup to this point is incomplete. Unlike Reservoir Dogs or Trainspotting, this film rarely lets the viewer enjoy its morally compromised characters. They're not very funny; they're not even fun.

Restaurant is, more or less, a realistic version of Friends set in a restaurant. Here racial, economic, and sexual divisions and alliances among a group of twentysomethings play out through the micropolitics of a Hoboken eatery. Again, our hero doesn't make up for his ethical failures with much panache. Chris (Adrien Brody) is a white playwright/bartender/alcoholic who has a thing for black women, especially after getting his heart broken by former waitress Leslie (Lauryn Hill). He seduces the new girl at work and then treats her badly. He fights on behalf of black staffers for fair promotions, but he's also a morose, unfunny lout. The film is pleasingly loose in setting up a clear goal for this character (get sober? deal with the fetish? forgive the ex?). On the flip side, the end is anticlimactic.

It's worth noting that the four lead characters of both films are orphans of one sort or another. The questions that weigh upon these Gen X characters aren't very different from those posed by Douglas Coupland a decade ago: How do you grow up without a satisfactory family model? And, beyond that, how do you forge a moral structure in the midst of godless chaos? (Perhaps Dockers should consider stationing a therapist's booth outside the theater.)

Much to their credit, Restaurant and Broken Vessels do not offer tidy answers--beyond the message that morality is not relative. They do suggest quite clearly that this generation's supposed cynicism may actually be a form of dementia. Call it the madness of the mice when the cat's run away and ain't coming back.


Broken Vessels screens at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Restaurant screens at 7:00 p.m. Saturday at Walker Art Center.

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