Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat May 01, 2021 2:06 pm 
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JAMES VAUGHAN: FRIENDS AND STRANGERS (2021) NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS

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FERGUS WILSON AND GREG ZIMBULIS IN FRIENDS AND STRANGERS

Looking at a generation and a class in a very intentional piece of seeming randomness

An Australian film about "millennial ennui" and, possibly, deeper menace, James Vaughan's debut feature, which he also wrote, has very slow-moving dialogue that's caused it to be linked with mumblecore, but it has more of an agenda. It concerns Ray (Fergus Wilson), a twenty-something videographer who runs into Alice (Emma Diaz) in Sydney in the summertime. She is driving her brother's car to Brisbane and he joins her on an ill-starred camping trip. The two wind up together in a tent (zip, unzip, zip); Ray misunderstands what's going on (nothing), resulting in a very delayed-fusing (but short-lived) "comedy of manners and misunderstandings." The action is so slow, the conversation so inconsequential, it seems almost an acid trip. This quality will eventually be redoubled, or more. Soon Ray is back in Sydney running some errand with a friend, then having to be rescued by his disapproving mother when his car breaks down.

She wonders when he's ever going to amount to anything. An underlying message of the film is that this very question, seemingly threatening, is really a sign of safety, because it is only askeable by and of the semi-affluent. The answer doesn't matter because, whether Ray succeeds at anything or not, he'll be okay. Those who lack this level of ease don't have the luxury of asking.

The acid trip feel redoubles during Ray's visit to a seaside villa where he’s expected to film a wedding and wanders the house and talks to the bride's father David (Greg Zimbulis), a garrulous art collector with a pouty daughter, Sammy, lazing in her messy room. Ray's gets into dangerous territory again - it's largely his function to do so - when David makes seemingly damning remarks about artists whose works cover his walls floor to ceiling as being foul minded and deranged and Ray refers to it as "filth" and gets tromped on, also literally knocks a hole in a wall when pushed by David to test its strength. All the while from next door comes fluctuating, sometimes very loud and disturbing string music whose sound is very much on the order of fingernails clawing a blackboard. Mood quite effectively outweighs content here. Mumblecore obviously never achieved this level of menace, hysteria, of lurking horror.

Later the director rounds out his picture of social privilege by pointing out that, in fact, there is not a single non-white or probably non-Anglo person to be seen throughout this film. Ray winds up joining a tour of the fancy seaside property as it ends and a lady asks, "This may be a stupid question, but what about the aboriginal people, are there any around here?" The guide begins, "No, that's not a stupid question at all..." but somehow the tour gets interrupted at that point and there is never an answer. Ray goes swimming, and his mother comes to rescue him, brought by David who, no surprise, has discovered they're old school friends. Closing captions say "Filmed on the lands of the Eora and Ngunnawal peoples." Friends and strangers, indeed. A little film that begins by annoying and trying one's patience but ends up seeming pretty cool.

The cinematography of Dimitri Zaunders may mirror "the looks of surveillance footage" as Leonardo Goi writes in (The Film Stage but it's really quite handsome all through, especially when depicting landscape, and more strikingly it exudes a sunny, bland beauty that makes everything more trippy.

Friends and Strangers, 93 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Feb. 3, 2021, virtual also at Jeonju, it was screened online for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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