Kicking the Tweets
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Wild Girl Waltz (2012)

This is Other People's Brains on Drugs

I'd like to begin with a sincere thanks to Karen, whose angry comments on two previous reviews have stuck so firmly in my brain that I'm now forced to adjust the way I write about movies. In a nutshell, she called me out on giving a pass to independent films for fear of coming off as too harsh on aspiring non-professionals.

Critics walk a fine line between being brutally honest and couching our true feelings when it comes to movies that fall short because of budgetary or first-time-follies constraints. Perhaps Karen has never had to queasily pan a film that was created by people she is likely to meet in various circles. The fact is, I'm not likely to run into J.J. Abrams at an after-party, so knocking the hell out of Super 8 feels like a safer bet than ripping a guy to shreds after he sends me a screener of his modest project.

Nonetheless, I take her meaning. My endorsement--assuming it carries actual weight with readers--is a green-light to seek out a movie. Because true indies don't pop up on Netflix, Amazon, or other entities that allow cheap rentals, the only way to see most of them is a blind-buy from the director's Web site. That can mean upwards of ten or twenty bucks out-of-pocket and sight unseen. So it's unfair of me to praise a film as being worth a blind buy if there's even an ounce of timidity in my virtual voice.

The best way forward, I think, is to be sparkling clear in how my recommendations are intended. Sometimes, a movie will fail in its performances and/or story, but will be so well technically executed as to be a beacon for young filmmakers or people considering getting into the game. Often, it's just as important to study one's peers' mistakes as it is their triumphs.

Case in point: Mark Lewis' Wild Girl Waltz, a meandering comedy that I would not ask any of my friends to sit through without a lengthy qualifying speech beforehand--but which I (mostly) enjoyed as a diamond-in-the-rough production from a filmmaker who may or may not have a decent future in the business.

Writer/director Lewis wears his influences on his celluloid sleeve, but seems to have taken all the wrong lessons from them. Wild Girl Waltz has the aimless non-plot of early Richard Linklater (two bored twenty-somethings take hallucinogens and must be baby-sat by one of their put-upon boyfriends); the episodic, title-cards-and-chit-chat delivery of Kevin Smith's Clerks (complete with spontaneous, soap-boxing monologues--more on that in a moment); and the stale rhythms of every bad sitcom you've seen in the last decade (the only trope left unturned is a character falling down and yelling, "I'm okay!" from off screen).

As the trippers in question, Christina Shipp and Samanth Steinmetz do quite well with the material they're given. Shipp reminded me of a cross between Kathy Griffin and Renee Zellweger, and Steinmetz a boozy Helen Hunt from her Mad About You days. See? Even in my actorly comparisons, I can't escape television references!

They fare better than the movie's male lead, Jared Stern. His Brian character (the babysitter) is a macho guy who thinks nothing of punching a woman in the face after throwing back a few beers with a fellow Bro-ski.* While fleeing the scene of this encounter, he pontificates on society's bullshit paradigm wherein it's somehow not okay to, under any circumstances, hit a female. At no point is he ridiculed or countered on this belief, so I can only assume that his words reflect the filmmaker's world view. Later, during the climactic moment when Brian gingerly deposits an "I Love You" napkin from his girlfriend in a keepsake box (aawwww), I couldn't help but wonder how far in their future the inevitable 9-1-1 call would be.

This errant machismo is at the heart of Wild Girl Waltz's story problems. Early on, we see Brian confront a friend (Scott Lewis) over an unpaid loan in a tense and comparatively riveting scene that I was sure would be called back during the drug adventure. But no: it's a complete non sequitur that only adds minutes to the run-time. The same goes for the scene in which Brian punches the woman (Kim Barlow), whom he finds rifling through the back of his pick-up truck. Again, I assumed (hoped, even) that this would tie in to the debtor storyline. Sadly, the woman is just a random thief who messes with the wrong douchebag.

Lewis' superfluous underbelly elements ram head-on into the otherwise semi-sweet tone of his film. Despite nigh undeliverable hack dialogue and the typical Drug Movie problem of the audience growing increasingly bored watching boring people get stoned,** the affection that these characters feel for each other shines through--even if one or more of them is reluctant to admit it.

Lewis needed to either fashion a coherent, plot-driven movie based around a drug trip, or make Wild Girl Waltz a wholly free-form experience that puts the audience in its protagonists' shoes. This schizophrenic middle-of-the-road business doesn't cut it. And while the actors are interesting enough to watch, their characters don't warrant the patience needed to endure through the ultimately pointless, "Hey-trip's-over-I-guess-Whaddya-wanna-do-tomorrow?" ending.

To Karen--and anyone else who might wonder where I ultimately come down on this picture--let me be sparkling clear: as a technician, Lewis shows great promise. Wild Girl Waltz features terrific use of music, a decent sense of pacing, and a game cast whose only real shortcomings are the words they're saddled with making sound like actual dialogue. If you're starting up an independent film of your own, by all means, hit up the movie's Web site and find out more about it.

But if you're looking for a smart, consistently enjoyable comedy, I'm sad to say this is not your film.

*Don't worry: it's all played for laughs.

**Tip: if you're going to show people freaking out at color trails and hallucinating, either spring for some awesome special effects or focus on a more engaging aspect of the story.

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