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Beside Still Waters (2014)

Millennial Falcons

Glancing at the poster or the premise, it's easy to write off Beside Still Waters as "The Big Chill for Millennials". There's a lot of truth in that elevator pitch. But first-time director Chris Lowell and co-writer Mohit Narang's voice is unique enough to warrant a closer look at this heartfelt drama about childhood friends reunited after a tragic death.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold) has just lost his parents in a car accident near the family's cabin. None of his closest friends showed up for the funeral, but they agreed to attend a weekend party after the fact. Trickling in like Real World cast members, we meet Tom (Beck Bennett), the recently fired, boozy, good-time lawyer; nerdy high school sweethearts Abby and Martin (Erin Darke and Will Brill), whose relationship is on the rocks; awkward-hunk-turned-reality-TV-star James (Brett Dalton); busted-compass sexpot Charley (Jessy Hodges); and Daniel's ex-girlfriend, Olivia (Britt Lower)--who shows up with her dashing, likable fiancé, Henry (Reid Scott).

Lowell and Narang know we've seen this story before, and they make two big decisions that keep their movie out of the recycling bin. First, Beside Sill Waters is short and comfortably low-key. The efficiency of this seventy-plus-minute dramedy should be studied by everyone from film students to Christopher Nolan. We meet the characters, enjoy some surprises, and even have time to kick back with a wistful montage or three. There's no fat here, and plenty of well-observed tenderness in the meat. Some of the comedy falls short, but in a way that suggests we simply weren't handed the codebook for this lifetime of best-buddy in-jokes (I still don't get the concept of, or attraction to, Whiskey Slaps). The heavier moments are particularly effective, thanks to a cast that doesn't too often push past relatability into "Big 'A' Acting".

Speaking of acting (if I might digress for a moment) TV junkies may get a kick out of the fact that half the cast made it big as small-screen stars--as did director Lowell (who played "Piz" on Veronica Mars). You may recognize Bennett from Saturday Night Live; Dalton from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Scott from My Boys and Veep; and Eggold from 90210. Each comes from a world of hefty ensembles, with spotlights that focused on costumed, curvy, or outrageously comedic co-stars; Beside Still Waters draws on their strengths as supporting players, and the small-pond nature of the movie, by definition, gives their considerable gifts more attention. That's not to suggest the actors are showy; they integrate smoothly with their lesser-known colleagues who, to a person, turn in breakout-worthy performances (especially Lower, whose deft handling of Olivia's layers is key to our understanding of what success and failure really look like for these characters).

The filmmakers' second achievement is the way they handle Henry, they fiancé character. Though Daniel is ostensibly the hero of this film, Henry is the real key--the catalyst for kicking everyone out of their metaphorical parents' basement. Most movies involving two exes and a new boyfriend/girlfriend go to great pains in revealing the interloper as a giant creep--thus making it easier for the destined-to-be-together lovebirds to rekindle old passions.

But Henry doesn't let anyone off the hook. Trapped in a house for two days with bitter, sex-crazed alcoholics, he could have easily become the jealous (or even abusive) jerk. Instead, he trusts Olivia enough to encourage her to get closure before beginning a new chapter. Through his altruism (and assertiveness), we see just how stuck Daniel, Olivia, and all their friends are in the asshole purgatory of their teenage years.

Beside Still Waters is a charming and surprisingly honest film about growing up and letting go. Lowell and Narang offer a bristling critique of nostalgia that celebrates the importance of holding on to some memories, and burning others for fuel.

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