Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?
Imagine if the kids from The Breakfast Club lived in Donnie Darko's universe and performed Waking Life as their school play, jazzing it up with musical numbers and a zombie apocalypse. That's the gist of Elliot Diviney's transcendent Potpourri, an independent film that, like Sudden Death! and Absentia, broadened my understanding of just how much can be achieved outside the Hollywood studio system.
You might think me crazy for calling it one of the year's best. Believe me, writing about Potpourri is a high wire act of controlling my urge to gush and finding just the right words to convince you that this low-budget movie you've never heard of is as smart, entertaining, and well-produced as most things you'll find at the cineplex.
The film centers on five philosophy students at a Minnesota college. Their penchant for slacking has led their teacher, Professor Winkle (Matthew Feeney), to offer a familiar ultimatum: ace their term papers or fail the class. They form a study group at Will's (Brent Stariha) house, and Frankie (Brandon Van Vliet) brings over a trio of specially made papier-mâché masks, each stuffed with a different consciousness-altering drug. Marnie (Shannon McDonough) brews a cup of 3000-mg coffee. Perry (Punnavith Koy) smears some lime-green goop on his chest and inhales deeply. Frankie fires up a hookah stuffed with trippy potpourri, and Noah (Ryan Kiser) samples a bit of everything. Hayden (Mike Borka) opts out, as he'd written his paper a month ago, and Will heads upstairs for some tutoring from his girlfriend, Emma (Jenelle Kidd), and a bottle of Ritalin.
From here, Potpourri plays out as a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes, each telling the story of what each character experiences on their respective drug trips. Perry wakes up in a medieval forest, full of talking dirt slugs, barbarians, and a princess in need of saving. Marnie makes her way to the local library, where she encounters a singing book and a term-paper salesman who looks and sounds like he sauntered in from a community-theatre production of Grease. It turns out Frankie mixed up the bottle he'd sold to Emma, who winds up super-stoned and behind bars. Frankie and Hayden, meanwhile, head to a party where a bad batch of drugs turns people into zombies.
And, hey, that's just one layer of this wacky onion! I didn't mention the hard-boiled federal agent hot on the trail of the undead narcotic. As Walter Killgore, Gary David Keast looks like the love-child of Michael Fassbender and John Hawkes, and acts as if he's weary of being world-weary. The movie also has a brilliant bookend device involving a Web critic named Richard Randolph (Tony D. Czech) who essentially live-blogs the story. He occasionally stops the show to point out flaws in the filmmaking or to switch from beer to whiskey as the screenplay unravels under the weight of its own silliness.
Yes, Potpourri is a silly film, but it deserves to be taken very seriously. The people behind it sure did, and to watch it is to be reminded that for every ten groups of nimrods fucking around in the woods with a camera, there is a passionate, undiscovered Peter Jackson or Martin Scorsese--an ambitious, talented visionary who settles for nothing less than perfection when creating art for public consumption. Diviney is, I believe, one such visionary. Almost every detail of his film is tackled with precision and a desire to make it look as "non-indie" as possible. From the animated text and imagery in Marnie's singing books; to the frequent reality-distorting warps and washes; to the impressive and imaginative gore on display in the climactic, Dead Alive-worthy zombie raid, Potpourri looks and feels like it was made for much more than it probably cost.
Regular Kicking the Seat readers know that I appreciate slick production values and special effects, but will dismiss both in a heartbeat if the screenplay is bad. Fortunately, Potpourri has one of the tightest, most thought-provoking and hilarious scripts I've seen in quite awhile. I opened this review by comparing the movie to a host of others--but that's just shorthand. The truth is that Potpourri is pretty unique in its presentation and ideas, and certainly in its execution. The numerous theories about time travel and parallel universes sound painstakingly legit; even if completely fabricated, it's melodiously woven into the dialogue in a way that makes me believe that the characters believe what they're saying. I also love that, even as the narrative eats itself, there's never a sense of Diviney winging his way towards an ending. Potpourri is a study in controlled craziness that puts to shame many recent movies that paint themselves into corners and then leave the audience to decide whether or not the filmmakers are geniuses or frauds.
No movie is perfect, though, and my minor gripe is that only ninety-nine percent of the actors are great. As the stoned knight, Perry, Koy straddles the line between believable, sleepy idiot and first-semester drama student. Fortunately, he's relegated to the film's goofiest realm, where his particular brand of got-the-script-a-second-ago delivery blends in well with the grunting savages and a princess (Jessica Cameron) who is also similarly afflicted. I should mention that the high quality of the rest of the film effectively buoys these sequences; by the end, I found Koy more charming than grating. The jury's still out on Kiser, whose physical expressiveness belies his often marble-mouthed delivery.
On the plus side, the movie features two great discoveries in Kidd and Feeney. I felt the impotent rage of Feeney's sarcastic educator in having to deal with a gang of unengaged kids; he imbues his character with a real enthusiasm for teaching, as well as spot-on comic timing when exacting his revenge at grading time. Kidd is a complete package of natural performance and cuteness, alternating between supportive, jilted girlfriend and blitzed-out-of-her-mind pixie (the dashboard video of her DUI arrest is both hot and hilarious). It's a testament to Diviney's commitment as a filmmaker that he sought out such great performers for roles that could have easily been disposable in this large, nutty ensemble picture.
I found Potpourri to be not only fun and wildly creative, but also inspirational. My five-reviews-per-week diet often leaves me feeling malnourished, spiritually. It doesn't take long to get discouraged at the state of movies in general, small or large. But every once in awhile, a crew of hungry, driven people emerges to remind me that there's no reason to settle for mediocre cinema, or to despair that the medium is dying. In this way, Diviney's film is itself pure consciousness expansion, and it'll be a long, long way down from this high.