The Big Shot Caller (Rhein, 2009)

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It seems appropriate that I saw The Big Shot Caller the same weekend I watched the NFL draft. It used to be that evaluating talent–in art or film–was about the person or work that was before your eyes that moment. Today, it’s become all about the “p”s: potential, projection, and prescience. Everyone wants to to be able to lay claim to being the first to recognize potential greatness, even if that means valuing present performance only in connection to future growth potential.

That’s a shame, really, because The Big Shot Caller is pretty much exactly the sort of film that ought to be enjoyed for what it is and what it does rather than one that lends itself to being shoe-horned into a marketing-hype model of the day.  It’s about a social misfit who, through dance, doesn’t change the world so much as change himself, and that a little at a time. I mentioned in my review of Rick Minnich’s Forgetting Dad, that the label “personal film” has pretty much turned into a back-handed compliment (if not a veiled insult), making it somewhat hard for the critic to praise modest accomplishments without sounding like he’s sneering.

Maybe there are no modest accomplishments in film. The Big Shot Caller is a personal film, though. So much so that I half wondered after the “Inspired by True Events” introduction whether I was not in for a Crumb/American Splendor type of celebration of my own ordinariness as meta-commentary on living in a celebrity, reality-tv world. I always ask myself when I see “based on a true story” if my response to the film would or should be any different without that label.  Here I can’t honestly say that it would.

That’s a problem, I think, because it evidences a tendency to tell me why something is significant rather than make me feel it is so, akin to telling me how I should feel rather than engendering that feeling in me. The intermittent voice-over narration does the same, and it also evidences some difficulties with narrative transitions. All of which is to say I liked Rhein the director a bit more than Rhein the writer.

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But that’s as negative as I can go, because I realized watching The Big Shot Caller that I’m so used to (and tired of) it being the reverse in directorial debuts–someone having a script that’s been worked and worked and worked to death but who’s never bothered to learn how to frame or light a shot. Rhein and director of photography Paolo Cascio certainly know how to do that, and it is more to their credit that even when dealing with dance, they don’t oversaturate the film with the gimmicks so common with less confident directors. I note from Rhein’s Facebook biography that she has directed several music videos, and I’ve included some screen shots that are clickable to high-res to illustrate that she’s really got a feel with a camera:

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Neither did I have any problems with Rhein the actress or her brother, David. The film’s best moments are really the small ones, communicated by looks and captured by the camera rather than created for it–a look Lianne gives to the bathroom mirror when she hears the voice of her father in the next room, a reaction shot from Jamie when responding to an invitation from a woman he met at a temp agency, Jamie’s tired, wry grin at his father’s “feng-shui” joke. I liked Lianne’s mix of spirituality and vulgarity, and I appreciated how the former expressed itself sporadically and organically within the context of the personal relationship rather than being dropped into the film as a ready-made speech around which the rest of the film is so clearly built. I enjoyed spending ninety minutes with these characters and getting to know them.

The latter point is what carries the film, because if you like the characters, their accomplishments and achievements don’t have to be monumental to be be significant, or at least to be experienced as such.

All these are just details, though. The litmus test for feature debuts is plain and simple: would you like to see more from the same source?

The answer is “yes.”

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Click here to see trailer.

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