A pleasant but overfamiliar trifle.
Caught somewhere between one of those Eric Rohmer summer movies and an overlong episode of Friends, William C. Sullivan’s That’s Not Us is the kind of passably amusing but overly-safe movie that saturates the current film festival scene. Despite its slightly out-of-the-mainstream subject matter, non-hysterical treatment of kinky sex, and aspirations to meandering naturalism, there’s nothing here that deviates too heavily from the Sy Field screenwriting template. Movies about the low-key relationship troubles of vaguely artsy 20-somethings drifting through white-collar post-grad aimlessness doesn’t exactly get the blood racing, but there are enough keenly observed moments and well-constructed gags to make for a pleasant enough 2 hours.
Shot in the slightly washed-out, shallow focus, high-res visual style that’s currently-in-vogue amongst the micro-budget crowd, the story focuses on a group of 20-something friends who gather for a week at a relative’s beach house. This group then splits into 3 couples, each hampered by a low-stakes, fairly generic issue: Alex and Jackie aren’t having sex as often as they used to and are in need of ways to spice things up; Spencer’s going to grad school and leaving his boyfriend James alone in the city; Dougie doesn’t know how to ride a bike and is worried that his masculinity will be undermined if he lets his girlfriend Liz teach him.
There are moments when tensions are subtly expressed through tossed-off passive aggressive comments and eye rolls, the improv-style dialogue filled with realistically bad jokes and delicate evasion tactics; specific details are wedded to generic situations to make them appear genuinely lived-in. However, as a whole, the narrative is too tidy and formulaic, complete with an afterschool-special-style moral about the importance of being open with those close to you. If there’s a unifying thematic thread tying these stories together, it’s the lack of communication, and (spoiler) each pair’s problem works itself out when they finally drop their puffed up personas and are finally honest with each other.
As with many theatre directors who turn to cinema, Sullivan’s style is unobtrusive and performance-intensive, mostly opting to capture the action in a series of casually framed two-shots or eye-level close-ups that capture the minutiae of the actors’ body language without interacting meaningfully with it. Subjects are usually framed so that you see the person talking and the person reacting at the same time, inviting your eyes to drift from one to the other. Aside from a handful of functional establishing shots, the camera rarely pulls out for anything wider then a medium shot, which means that there’s no real sense of environment.
No composition carries any kind of expressive or iconographic weight, instead opting to appear – by design – to be indifferently caught rather than deliberately orchestrated. It’s the sort of pragmatic, visually flat style favoured by the most pragmatic mumblecore filmmakers which I thought had migrated to HBO. Once you look past the low-key realist rhythms, and meandering conversational longeuers, there isn’t much more insight here than you can find in the average sitcom.
That’s Not Us (2015), directed by William Sullivan, is being shown as part of the 2015 Raindance Film Festival. Further information about the film and screening times can be found here.