“People never make films about ordinary people who never do anything.”
“They’re out there…”
That first meta-statement comes from Naomi (Emily Browning), an Australian twentysomething with a work visa, a temp gig as an archivist’s assistant and the sort of youthful bloom that attracts both wanted and unwanted attention. The reply is from Nick (ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz), her married fortysomething employer who’s currently doling out the latter; he finishes the sentence with “… and I could take you to one some time,” which suggests that underneath his nice-guy facade, something potentially toxic this way lies.
There’s also Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), his therapist wife; her sister Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker); a music-producer (Jason Schwartzman), who Naomi knows from way back; his wife Jess (Analeigh Tipton); and her occasional confidant Sam (Lily Rabe). All of them float around the bars, bistros and beardo enclaves of a magic-hour Brooklyn. All of them are either victims or perpetrators (or both) of the discreet harm caused by the bourgeoisie, outer-borough division. All of them are in a film about ordinary people who never do anything, including rising above their own perpetual sense of unhappy stasis.
All of this comes courtesy of Alex Ross Perry, a writer-director whose career almost reads like an indie-filmography checklist: spare, lo-fi but highly ambitious project (the WWII movie Impolex); spare, lo-fi cringe-comedy but with a touch of Pasolini-esque provocation (The Color Wheel); mid-fi cringe-comedy but with recognizable stars (Listen Up Philip); and mid-fi woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown downward spiral but with a celebrity muse (Queen of Earth). We’re not here to bury Perry via those descriptions, nor necessarily faint-praise him. But the 33-year-old has been one of the more interesting filmmakers to come out of the American microbudget movie scene, someone who was intent from the get-go in doing more than just masturbatory post-collegiate hang-out stories. You inherently felt that he had incredible work in him if you could simply wait out his enfant terrible phase.
Golden Exits is the first of Perry’s people-behaving-badly pieces to start to make good on that promise. Shot in 16mm by cinematographer Sean Price Williams – the unsung hero of independent dramas and docs over the past decade – his ensemble piece feels marinated in a certain type of NYC ennui and fueled by chatty momentum. Think early Whit Stillman without the archness, or Woody Allen without the schtick, self-seriousness or need for post-screening steel-wool shower, and you’re almost there. But there’s also an unusual sense of lived-in malaise in the creative-class movie’s messy apartments and the creative-class clutter of its cramped office spaces. A dollop of maturity suits him, as does examining life beyond one’s Criterion Collection shelves.
And it helps emphasize Perry’s strength, which is giving actors the time and space to let scenes, reactions, resolutions (or lack thereof) play out to the fade out. The director loves his tight close-ups, often giving the whole frame to a performer’s face and holding on them several beats longer than expected. Whether it’s Horowitz, whose acting still feels like he’s exploring an earnest, after-hours hobby, or Parker and Rabe, theater veterans who know when to go big and when to let a glance say everything, everyone gets their moments. Perry also has a penchant for pairing his cast members in scenes and letting them play off each other in different mix-and-match combos: Horowitz and Browning, then Browning and Schwartzman, then Schwartzman and Tipton, then Tipton and Rabe, etc. The effect can feel like watching movie-star speed-dating. It can also mine golden exchanges, and the writer-director knows when to milk them and when to cut away. You feel like he’s actually listening to his characters instead of dictating them.
Dropping a sexy young stranger into the middle of established couples and social clans is, of course, it’s own cliché, (though if it finally allows Browning to do more than punch or pout, who cares); so is pinballing between different but equally anxious, neurotic Gothamites, especially if you drop swelling symphonics over neighborhood interstitial scenes. (Check two more indie-flick boxes.) It’s what filmmakers can do with such material that makes the difference, and that’s where Perry and friends prove that they deserve to leave their mark. You could argue that Golden Exits exists in a bubble – a Brooklyn-based filmmaker telling the stories of middle-class Brooklynites, to be picked over by critics probably living on those same brownstone-dotted blocks. But the way it translates this closed-circuit culture into a microcosm of unfulfilled potential and universal dissatisfaction, all without devolving into easy social anthropology or retro-analog tweeness, is impressive. We hope Perry keeps going down this road and stays golden.