Director/Screenwriter: Michael Kelber
2008 Big Island Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is fitting Michael Kelber’s first outing as a feature director was the opening feature of the Big Island Film Festival. As this festival goes through the growing pains of most young festivals—less-than-ideal venues, DVDs in unreadable formats, small audiences—so, too, has Kelber stretched his creative muscles, but with fewer false moves. Fitting, too, is his choice of narratives—two boyhood friends whose youthful mischief grows up to become deadly serious without either of them really intending for it to happen.
Paul (Howard Gibson) and Jim (Jason Hamer) are natives of Brick, New Jersey. The opening credits shot in the sepia haze of memory show the young boys pulling pranks—pulling a girl’s pigtails, tee-peeing a house, throwing eggs at a door. A final sequence shows the boys, now college age, with Samantha (Alice Rietveld), the girl with the pigtails who has grown up to be Jim’s girlfriend.
The film starts in earnest by showing us Paul and Jim stealing a car. They ride around for a while, and then Jim drops Paul at home. Paul tells Jim to ditch the car. Before he does, Jim pulls into a convenience store parking lot to pick up something to eat. The car is identified as stolen, and he is confronted by two cops. When they try to handcuff him, he hits one of them. That reckless impulse costs him four years in jail. Samantha promises Jim she’ll stand by him, and Paul promises to look out for her.
The film flash-forwards three years to show Jim being overpowered by three larger convicts with little question that they intend to rape him. Sam starts receiving depressed, angry letters from Jim. The newest and most alarming one arrives five days before his release. Paul is concerned and feels guilty that Jim did the time for the pair’s crime. Paul goes to the prison to see what’s up with Jim and assure him that he has a full-time job waiting for him in Paul’s landscaping business. Jim puts on a strong, devil-may-care face. Feeling helpless, Paul leaves.
After Jim is released from prison, he seems a changed man. Filled with anger, he drinks too much, skips meetings with his parole officer, and argues constantly with Sam. He clowns around on the job and seems headed for more trouble ahead.
On the fateful day that forms the dramatic crisis of the film, Paul attends his niece’s sixth birthday and commiserates with his divorced sister about her financial troubles. She’s preparing to leave their house for a more affordable apartment. Paul, however, has just received word that his loan application to expand his business has been approved. He goes home to a night of popcorn and videos.
That evening, Sam and Jim get into a huge argument. Jim storms out of the house and ends up at Paul’s home. He convinces the reluctant Paul to play a prank on a neighbor—string a wire across the street near the neighbor’s driveway and wait for him to run into it and break his headlights.
Hours pass, and the neighbor never shows up. Paul decides to leave. Jim, angered, starts hurling insults. Paul hurls them back. The young men get into a physical fight and are on the ground when they hear the screech of brakes and a crash. The friends take off running and hide in a tool shed in back of a house. The man of the house takes up a baseball bat and reluctantly hunts down the noise his wife heard. Panicking when he reaches the tool shed, Jim slugs the man in the eye. The police are called in, and a cat-and-mouse hunt ensues. I’ll just say it doesn’t end well for one of the cops. And of course, we saw it coming all along.
The story Kelber is interested in telling is how two friends in a classic ringleader-follower relationship react to a tragedy in which they both are culpable. Paul, a basically decent guy with little interest in causing trouble, seems to bear a larger burden of guilt for what was an out-of-control prank that started out relatively harmlessly. Jim seems to be a hard case after his stint in prison. But is he really a bad guy or a rape victim who never received counseling? When I talked with Kelber, he felt that both were decent people who made a very bad choice. I lost a lot of sympathy for Jim following his release from prison; he seemed quick with his fists in a way that wasn’t just prison survival. I gave up on him sooner than Kelber did. Regardless of this difference of opinion, we agreed that both actors turned in great performances and had the believable chemistry of long-time friends.
The low budget of the film—shot in the director’s hometown to save on costs and smooth permitting and casting—shows, but doesn’t really distract. Brick is a working-class town and should look rough around the edges. The acting is uniformly fine, particularly from Michelle Wells as Paul’s sister and Rietveld. The film is well plotted and consistent, though a rather expansive first act could have been tightened without losing anything of importance. The middle act—the crisis—is very exciting, nerve wracking, and believable. I was in awe of the way Gibson and Hamer jumped fences through the backyards of Brick to evade the police patrolling with the searchlight. I also must mention the superb use of music in this film. I’m not very sensitive to scoring, so the fact that Carlos Rodriguez and Mr. e’s score for Bricktown seems so inevitable, suiting the pace and mood of each scene in a way that even I could admire, makes it one of the best I’ve heard.
Michael Kelber is a talented screenwriter and director whose debut feature promises good things to come. Bricktown may be a long shot for distribution, but I fully expect it to turn up at other film festivals. You should make time to see this touching, surprising, impressive debut of a new directorial talent.