“Greener Grass” Traverse City Film Fest Review (2019)

Written by Jocelyn Deboer and Dawn Luebbe and directed by Deboer and Luebbe, “Greener Grass” is almost like a movie, if you were on copious amounts of drugs and locked in a movie theater until the credits rolled. I don’t even feel as if I can call this experience a movie, that would be a disservice to the history of the medium. I don’t enjoy being harsh on films or filmmakers, it’s hard to make a movie- any movie for that matter, but this one threw me for a loop. Okay, so, if I were to describe this film it would be a sort of nightmarish “Stepford Wives“-like scenario drenched in sunny pastel hues wherein soccer moms Jill (Jocelyn Deboer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) consistently make awkward small talk while casually tossing about major life choices with the fickle and capricious nature of children under the age of six. At the opening children’s soccer game Lisa notices Jill’s newborn and notes how cute she is. Jill responds with “Oh, do you want her? She’s great.” and she cheerily hands her baby over to Lisa- not to hold- but for keeps. That’s Lisa’s child now. This is about less than thirty seconds into the movie, and that should clue you into the illogical slog you’re about to experience.

Jocelyn Deboer (left) and Dawn Luebbe (right)

There’s just not enough material for a feature, maybe a short film. Which, I discovered, is exactly what this concept was before being given the green-light for feature development. Which is perplexing to say the least. I don’t know what the percentage of scripts getting greenlit versus the untold amount that never see the light of production is, but I can’t help thinking that countless better ideas were overlooked when this got made instead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to go out and protest this film or wage an online battle against anyone involved in bringing it to fruition- it just made me wonder how many other films were sitting unmade while this got produced.

It’s really just a series of sketches more tailored for adult swim than the movie theater. For example, Jill’s son Julian is dragged from practicing piano, soccer, and to school but the kid is painfully pathetic at literally everything. He screeches in abject terror every time he’s slightly jostled by a softly lobbed baseball or when loosely brushed by his fellow teammates on the field. About halfway through the film he passes out into the pool at a local gathering and transforms into a golden retriever. Why? Nobody knows. Everyone simply treats him as if he’s still perfectly human. There’s also a murderer running around in the background breathing heavily and watching Jill’s family and muttering about Julian and events in their lives. I assumed that maybe Julian was somehow the murderer- but no. That thread goes nowhere, Jill encounters the murderer later as she walks into her home after divorcing her husband because her friends randomly suggest it to her on a whim- sorry, there’s a lot of odd context that is hard to keep track of throughout the film. Anyways, Jill just finds a large woman cooking in her home who aggressively screams that this is her house now, Jill apologizes, and then pauses to double-check with the intruder to make sure that it really isn’t her house before being pushed out into the street. This film’s scenes are just a bunch of non-sequiturs that could be rearranged in any order and it would make just as much sense as it currently does.

What we would normally call the plot, is completely nonsensical, devoid of any and all structure or any narrative meaning whatsoever. If there were at least one connecting idea through the film then maybe there would be something, but none of it connects, the main character learns nothing and accomplishes nothing. She floats through life and plainly accepts decisions made for her by insane people as if these preposterous choices couldn’t be undone- no matter how painfully stupid they may be. Again, I feel conflicted at times when discussing “Greener Grass”, I’m supportive of everybody and anybody getting out there and creating something, anything, but with this one, I found almost nothing of value. I don’t ask for much, but I mean, any nugget of cohesion would have been appreciated. This film feels like someone that was raised in an extremely privileged setting grew up not knowing the value of money or narrative and thought, “I bet I can make a movie” with no supporting thoughts to back that up. The one thing I did laugh at though, was that after Julian transformed into a dog his father played catch with his new dog/son (dressed in children’s clothes by the way) and he was so proud of Julian- because he’s faster now. Later when Jill confronts him about missing Julian the way he used to be, he looks at Jill confusingly and says, “Miss him? He’s right here, and he’s awesome now.” I have to agree, Julian was far more entertaining as a dog.

Oh, and I get it, comedy is subjective. All art is subjective. If this experiment works for you- then great! Every movie is somebody’s favorite movie, but I have a feeling that this one may have less favoritism than most. Personally, I cannot recommend this one, but you’re welcome to give it a shot!

Final Score: 13 Kids with Knives


Review: Thunder Road

Written and directed by Jim Cummings, “Thunder Road” is a comedic-drama about the worst week of officer Jim Arnaud’s life. In a small Texas town the film opens in a church with the funeral proceedings of our lead character’s mother having just passed away. For context’s sake, this powerful opening scene was essentially lifted beat for beat from Cumming’s award-winning Sundance short film of the same name. A couple of years later Cummings opened that story up to it’s current feature length and expanded on the existential devastation that Cummings’ Arnaud goes through.

The single shot, 10 minute, opening eulogy that Jim gives is the solid foundation that the remainder of the film rests upon. In it he runs through the gamut of scrambled emotions that can befall someone when losing a loved one. He shares stories, tells jokes, he even dances, all resulting in a rambling absurdist confessional that feels more akin to a bad American Idol outtake than how most films would handle such a scene. Which is exactly why this film is so memorable. Jim Cumming’s performance is littered with so much nuance that informs the audience about his character’s state of mind, past, and psychology that I know more about Jim Arnaud’s life than I will ever know about almost any male lead in a given feature. The vulnerability in this performance is palpable, there’s no proper or polite crying here. Jim’s anguish is a raw nerve exposed with ugly-face crying all while repeatedly trying to pull himself back from the edge in an effort to appeal to his own perception of manliness and politeness. Everything that can go wrong in this scene does, his daughter’s pink boombox that he hauls onstage to play the title track doesn’t even work- so he mimes the performance through tears and cringe-inducing embarrassment.

The rest of the film follows Jim after his public devastation, on his job as an officer of the law and in his home life as he battles for joint custody of his daughter. His ex-wife, Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer), attempts to gain sole custody of Crystal (Kendal Farr) and move out of the town. After a particularly confrontational day at work Jim seeks out his sister Morgan (Chelsea Edmundson) for familial advice and comfort, but after a scene that digs deeper into both characters’ connected past through their shared mother- Jim realizes that he must move forward on his own. From there the film exponentially accelerates the anxiety of his life at work and at home with attempts to alleviate the woes of both his daughter and the local police chief (Bill Wise).

So, this brings me to the conversation around the Academy Awards. I’ve already spoken before on my distaste for ranking, numbering, or giving out awards for art in general (as all art is subjective to the viewer’s taste)- but if we’re going to give awards out for performances, then we have to decide how we’re prioritizing the dialogue on film awards. The whole reason to give a best actor/actress award is to shine a light on a performance widely accepted as objectively good, and if that’s the case shouldn’t we focus on the lesser known performances that stand out as exceptional examples of the craft? If that’s the case then I have to admit that I’m amazed that “Thunder Road” hasn’t been mentioned in any conversation that I’ve heard concerning this year’s Oscars. Jim Cummings should be a name to keep an ear out for from this point on.

A French advertisement for the American indie hit “Thunder Road”

The acting in this film is superb and the number one reason to see it in my opinion, however, some praise should be given to how Jim Cummings and his team self distributed the film as indie filmmakers without going through the major studio/marketing system. After the film’s success at the South by SouthWest film festival Cummings and his team fought through the red tape of the major market distribution and instead used social media, kickstarter, got a few investors, invested in the film themselves some too, and before you knew it the film was a box office hit in France of all places. I highly encourage giving the links below a read-through to get more into the details of how they made this film and got it out to audiences in a variety of creative solutions. *(I don’t even know if the film has a physical copy release on DVD or BluRay, but I “rented” the film on YouTube and I’m glad I did!)

Final Score: 1 pink children’s boombox

*Check out the links below to get more in-depth information about how Jim Cummings and his team self distributed this film.*