Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Lauren Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff
Writer: Christopher Radcliff
Producer: Sebastien Aubert, Michael Prall, Eric Schultz, Shani Geva, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, James Freedson-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Melanie Nicholls-King, Olivia Wang, Owen Campbell, Tobias Campbell, Birgit Huppuch
A troubled boy and a mysterious man go on the run to escape a haunting trauma that bonds them together.
There are contrarian critics such as Armond White who manufacture hyperbolic hot takes purely as incendiary clickbait. Then there are those who are simply out of touch with contemporary cinematic tastes. The former involves author’s intent while the latter frequently has more to do with age.
Take increasingly irrelevant film critic Rex Reed. Reed demonstrated an urgent need to be put out to pasture by deeming “The Shape of Water,” an award-winning film overwhelmingly praised by audiences and journalists, “a loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.” Further embarrassing himself by confusing director Guillermo del Toro with actor Benicio del Toro, Reed doubled down on his dumbfounding opinions by backhandedly defending “The Shape of Water” for being “not as stupid and pointless as that other critically overrated piece of junk ‘Get Out’.”
When I view a movie such as “The Strange Ones,” and subsequently weigh my exasperated apathy toward its ambiguity against the acclaim for its supposedly solipsistic intrigue, I wonder if/when I might have begun my own turn down Rex Reed Road. See, there was a time, predominantly my college days in the 1990s, when I stroked chin whiskers at what was then a current trend of exploring coming-of-age contemplativeness via dark arthouse entertainment. This was when movies like “Kids” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” courted edgy controversy while outsider filmmakers such as Allison Anders and Kevin Smith still flew under mainstream radars. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were fast emerging as the cool kids, but being in the know on the scene above afforded extra credibility in circles that had yet to realize a modern indie movie movement was taking place.
I was probably even snobbish enough, as twentysomethings can be when they assume everyone else should oscillate on the same wavelength, to tout my superior cinema awareness with feigned incredulity at ignorance or inability to see pop culture the same way. “What do you mean you haven’t seen ‘Bottle Rocket’?” “You’ve never heard of ‘Hard Eight’?” Shame on you Philistines!
Yet the older I get, the less tolerance I have for aesthetics that might have intellectually engaged me two decades ago. Part of me chalks this up to evolving interests. Another part of me wonders if I’m simply wiser now, no longer fooled by fill-in-the-blank films where I have to decide if the filmmakers have an authentic thematic purpose in mind, rather than demand that they prove it to me themselves.
I offer this long preface as a bet hedge that maybe I “just don’t get it.” Maybe my perspective has soured to the point where I’m no longer able to discern deeper meaning in movies such as Craig William Macneill’s “The Boy” (review here - not the one with the killer doll) or Robert Mockler’s “Like Me” (review here) the way I could “in my day,” before middle age narrowed my mind.
Or maybe I’m not as near the Rex Reed retirement age as I feared. Maybe when I see echoing emptiness behind the scattered scene arrangement, long stretches of silence, and drearily dreamy drama of “The Strange Ones,” I’m rightfully seeing straight into hollowness where others swear they see substance.
“The Strange Ones” cuts its obliqueness from the cloth commonly reserved for A24 releases. Young boy Sam and older man Nick are living life on the run. They pose as brothers, though the film goes out of its way to avoid qualifying their relationship, so we can be certain they aren’t really siblings. Whatever cause they have to flee from authorities, it involves a dead man whose relationship to the duo also goes auspiciously unmentioned. Made evident early in the setup stage, the movie’s main trick for fostering mystery involves denying the audience information that characters already have.
Nick and Sam amble, ramble, and briefly encounter various strangers on their literal road to nowhere. Along the way, flashbacks drop backstory breadcrumbs, a reappearing black cat provides a leitmotif, warbling woodwinds aurally unsettle uninteresting visuals, and slow zooms put a weird 1970s texture onto cinematography. In short, “The Strange Ones” checks all of the usual boxes to give the appearance of an introspectively auteur endeavor, whether it actually is or not.
Young actor James Freedson-Jackson ably sells the confused vacancy behind Sam’s eyes, although his passionless monotone comes to exemplify the movie’s dully patient rhythm. While I haven’t seen the 2011 short film upon which this feature is based, I’m inclined to believe “The Strange Ones” moved the same vague message in 14 minutes that somehow requires 80 now. Presumably, that message involves quiet philosophizing intended to reflect the ennui of uncertain youth. That philosophy never finds firm footing however, leaving the film to list as a “Choose Your Own Interpretation” narrative.
I’m too cowardly to award the subtle suspense of “The Strange Ones” any score more or less than an evasive 50/100. By not leaning negative, I avoid approaching that possible sundown when my insight holds no relevant weight for a movie in hand. By not overcompensating with an assumption that the movie’s indecisive ideas must rise high over my head, I remain true to my instinct that “The Strange Ones” only runs skin deep.
I won’t attract rage clicks or discourse by being noncommittal. Then again, “The Strange Ones” may not matter enough to warrant either.
Review Score: 50