Triumph of the underdog

Pub date December 2, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

In Frazer Bradshaw’s Everything Strange and New, Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), wears overalls too large and a look of pained, dazed acquiescence. It’s as if not just his clothes but his life were given to the wrong person — and there’s a no-exchange policy. He loves wife Reneé (the writer Beth Lisick) and their kids. But those two unplanned pregnancies mean she’s got to stay home; daycare would cost more than she’d earn.
So every day Wayne returns from his dead-end construction job to the home whose mortgage holds them hostage; and every time Reneé can be heard screaming at their not-yet-school-age boys, at the end of her tether. Sometimes he silently just turns around to commiserate over beer with buddies likewise married with children, but doing no better. Leo (Rigo Chacon Jr.) is in the middle of a very messy divorce, while Manny (the late Luis Saguar, in a beautiful performance) pretends to be maintaining better than he really is. (He has a surprising secret escape valve, and in one great late scene we realize Leo has one too.)
Wayne’s voiceover narration endlessly ponders how things got this way — more or less as they should be, yet subtly wrong. He might be willing (or at least able) to let go of the idea of happiness. But Reneé’s inarticulate fury at her stifling domestication keeps striking at any nearby punching bag, himself (especially) included. Something’s got to change. But can it?
Cue deus ex machina happy ending. Or so one would in another movie, like Katherine Dieckmann’s supposedly gritty recent Motherhood. But veteran local experimentalist and cinematographer Bradshaw’s first feature, which he also wrote, never stoops to narrative cliché. Or to stylistic ones, either — there’s a spectral poetry to the way he photographs the Oakland flats (few movies have captured ordinary landscapes so vividly). The spinning-in-place sense is underlined by Dan lonsey and Kent Sparling and Dan Plonsey’s score, which melds Philip Glass, Irish folk, and noise-rock caterwaul to externalize all Wayne’s suppressed tumult.
The ordinary wear, tear, and occasional rending of relationships you and I might actually know is portrayed infrequently enough onscreen that when it does turn up, the recognition factor is a little startling. Everything Strange and New seemed a tonic at the Sundance Film Festival this year precisely because it was the kind of indie — quiet, serious, intimate, void of stars and buzz — people complain can’t get made, or even into Sundance, anymore.
Seen again, Everything Strange and New is even better — a film about very small (except to the afflicted), banal (ditto), everyday problems that manages to be mysteriously exhilarating.

EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW opens Fri/4 at the Roxie.