They are like the Sopranos finale or the perfect party; their power is collective, their weirdness warps you. But weirdness is also very easy, anyone can mull some strange shit and call it a work of art. To sell some sincerely strange happenings is hard and Zachary Quinto, the second coming of Spock in the second coming of Star Trek, pulls up to the plate as a schizophrenic fellow in Brian Shoaf's debut feature, Aardvark. Top-tier talent joins him: Jon Hamm as his estranged brother and Jenny Slate as his therapist, Emily Milburton. But this is Quinto's show by a long shot, a masterful use of the frame of an indie's indie movie to demonstrate just what acting is all about in the first place.
Aaarkvark gives him an ethereal stage; on it, Quinto looks down, up, at the camera and then around. He quivers. Shoaf knows what he is dealing with: Quinto occupies every inch of our attention. The plot is like water falling through fingers: how less descript can a man be with a name like Josh Norman? An incoming patient of Emily's therapy practice, Norman is troubled by the presence of his brother, who has recently returned to the all-American small town that he left behind to be the kind of hotshot Hollywood-actor who stars in a long serial called South Street Law. (The first few seasons are really good, Josh implores to his therapist.) Josh has begun seeing Craig, lately, in homeless women on the street and in late-night customers at the coffee shop where he works. Unsurprisingly, he had stopped taking his meds. More surprising is that we discover Craig is actually around the corner, avoiding his brother and sleeping with Emily.
Quinto describes the movie as "the story of three people who are lost to themselves."
Indie movies, if they don't take place in New York, are generally breathe the constrained air of small worlds and packed little worlds. They exist in the nondescript college towns their writer/director's graduated from: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kevin Smith's New Jersey. For some, this is too slight and the colorful bigness of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 beckons. But sit down with Aardvark, stare at Quinto's quivering eyes. A surreal conceit demands a certain kind of commitment from any acting talent, the world is their hands and not the back of their audience's mind. Quinto rules it, most often, without saying a single world: Shoaf dictates most of his small world with an arsenal of long pauses, the kind Quinto rarely gets to make as the hyperactive chatterbox he normally plays.
Ditto Jenny Slate, who surrogates for the audience and discovers perfect comedic timing in the awkward pauses and unsaid words between her and her patient. This is not the Slate we fell in love with in Obvious Child and we're better for it. Slate deserves more than a likably female Woody Allen-schtick. Hamm, longtime fans will rejoice, remains a moody sex symbol.
The strange world they look at is full of charms that pop out of dark corners. Like the hero of a Latin American hunk of magical realism, Josh's schizophrenic visions are ultimately the kinds of pleasant things that Americans don't like to associate with a dichromatic understanding of mental illness. (in a q&a after the screening I attended, Shoaf explained that his script was influenced by an interest in the work of groups like the Hearing Voices Movement, who advocate against medicating schizophrenia.) Josh's visions carry with them not the horror we expect but the intense sadness of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, the tragedy of falling in love with something that isn't real. Inside these delusions, he discovers a version of his brother that is better than the real thing; later, a love interest played by Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Alone At Night). Aadvark is about the loneliness of small towns, the barren wastelands of American suburbia that are, to a paraphrase Win Butler, really cities with no children in it.
What Shoaf manufactures in Aardvark is the closest thing in contemporary American cinema to the sensibility of Yorgos Lanthimos, whose English-language debut (The Lobster) got a nod for Best Original Screenplay and one expects that a baleful of imitations are currently in pre-production as we speak. But Shoaf comes across it almost by accident, or at least seems to. Helmed by a Quinto who always seems to be looking somewhere else, at somewhere perpetually off-screen, Aardvark does not wrap up nicely nor are we left with the accruements of the story, well-told. We are left with something else, something that haunts the very poles of our consciousness. The imperfect stuff of great cinema.
Andrew Karpan is Popdust's movie man. If your movie is poppin', he will confirm. Follow him on Twitter.
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