PRESENT COMPANY

Script or Improv?

There seems to be a real trend at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival toward naturalistic character driven drama. “Script or Improv?” is a question that keeps popping up at the Q&As. Some films reach for that rhythm of gut-wrenching, awkward pause-splattered dialogue through improvisation, while others get there through script and amazing acting. Sometimes when the film doesn’t work (as in the case for this reviewer with Yeast and Nights and Weekends), it’s pretty obvious the method that led to their failure. No one method works better than another but it is always interesting to note that when the chosen method works you often assume that the opposite method was chosen. For example, most people are at first shocked to learn that films like Faces and Shadows are not improvised. Likewise, I was surprised to find out that the new Frank Ross film, Present Company, was fully scripted. I think there is no higher honor for a character-driven, naturalistic film than to assume, like Faces, that it was created in the moment through improvisation.

Essentially the film is a break-up movie, but unlike Nights and Weekends, Present Company takes us deep inside the characters as they fight the urge to break up through lies and deceit. Since very few of us speak as if we live in an episode of Dawson’s Creek, where the characters say exactly what they are thinking, a naturalistic film has to find other means to convey the truth of a relationship. The truth is rarely, in reality, conveyed through dialogue. The truth is conveyed by what is not said, and by this I don’t mean stylized broken sentence stutters (the worst aspect of the mumblecore affectation) but through action, or gesture, or a perfectly timed cut.

Present Company follows main character Buddy (played by Ross) as he struggles with his mixed feelings about his relationship to the mother of his young boy. Buddy is an edgy character who probably prides himself in being honest with his friends as well as himself. In one scene he tells his friend’s new girlfriend to turn off the CD she is playing on the car stereo. No one agrees and the music continues as Buddy opens the car door and threatens to jump out if the music isn’t changed. In a burst of anger he calls her “…new girlfriend” and the car goes silent. But, despite not having any issues with being socially inept and brutally honest with friends, when it comes time to look honestly at his own most intimate relationship, he turns away.

One night, Buddy stays out all night with a new friend who is stripping in a burlesque show. He goes home with her but he refrains from having sex with her. The next morning he rushes home to his angry girlfriend. At first, there is no screaming, no throwing of dishes, just awkward conversation as both people try to deal with the space between them. As he takes a shower, she goes through his pockets and finds a flyer for the strip show. She sticks it on the fridge in an obvious place where he will see it. When he comes back into the kitchen we watch him, through the girlfriend’s perspective, as he pulls the flyer off of the fridge. He sits down at the table and we sit there with them as they struggle to deal with the silent elephant sitting in the middle of the room. Eventually the conversation starts to point at the obvious and there is no where else to go and so he starts yelling about the dirty dishes as he leaves the room. It’s a perfectly paced scene, well directed and powerfully acted and it serves as the perfect climax to this slow burn of a break up story.

— Mike S. Ryan

(Visit the film’s official website for a link to the trailer and to find out about upcoming screenings.)

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