A bit too much happens in Cement Suitcase for me to toss it on the Mumblecore heap. I mean that in a good way. Normally films about listless, aimless, young (not quite) adults prompt so much irritation in me that there is little room for sympathy and no room for empathy. So how does this indie festival darling sidestep condemnation by genre association? That’s a good question.
The film revolves around Franklin (Dwayne Bartholomew), the acknowledged “best wine salesman in the Yakima Valley.” Franklin’s girlfriend is cheating on him, but he can’t bring himself to confront her, even when she pocket dials him while making out with another guy. He is behind on mortgage payments, looking to rent a room, when Jackford (Nathan Sapsford) breaks into his apartment and somehow, rather than getting sent off to jail, manages to insinuate himself into Franklin’s life. Will enough–will any of Jackford’s carefree attitude rub off on Franklin in time to save him from permanent residency in his unhappy rut?
That summary hints at one answer to the question of how the film differs from more tedious laments about and from disaffected twenty-somethings being forced to live adult lives. For one, the social paralysis seems particularly strong in Franklin, not his whole network of acquaintances. Sure, his coworkers and acquaintances can be irritating at times, but Franklin recognizes on some levels it is his own boredom that exaggerates their tediousness and not their tediousness that causes his boredom. The film also allows Franklin the glimmering recognition that his irritation poisons the half of human interactions that is genuinely friendly, perpetually distancing him from the social interactions that could be the cure for his isolation. That emotional and social Catch-22 isn’t particularly rare in postmodern comedies, but Cement Suitcase doesn’t simply wallow in Franklin’s self-pity.
Jackford’s character links the film to another set of comedic tropes–the friend or acquaintance who is less successful on the surface but has something to teach the ostensibly wiser, more successful, but less happy friend. (Think Ferris Bueller, What About Bob?, or Down and Out in Beverly Hills.) Those tropes come with their own landmines which also have to be avoided. In particular, I liked that the film didn’t feel the need to overdo Jackford’s zaniness. His attitudes and lifestyle complement Franklin’s without being idealized. He is, perhaps, what Franklin needs, and hits the nail on the head with his diagnosis: “You are scared shitless to live life my friend.” He is not, however, a role model so much as an influence.
The nicest thing about Cement Suitcase is that it allows Franklin some measure of self-knowledge and agency in choosing how to be influenced. The steps he takes may be baby steps–those in an arrested state of development can take no other kind–but they are the more meaningful for him taking them rather than being pushed into them by some sort of idealized savant.
Cement Suitcase will be available through Video on Demand beginning March 1st. Comedy is in woeful supply at the multiplex these days, with what few offerings we have (The Heat, Grown Ups 2) increasingly dominated by crass jokes that might make more of a splash on a trailer but are quickly forgotten. Rick Castañeda’s film is a welcome alternative.