Hugs vs. Handshakes: Life’s Battles in Donald Cried
By Elias Savada.
The indie movie Donald Cried joins a growing number of feature films based on a short subject (among my small-budget faves: 1995’s Sling Blade and 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite). It’s a fine feature debut for director (also co-writer, star) Kris Avedisian, based on his 22-minute oil-and-water bromance from 2012, in which he is also seen opposite his current co-star (and co-writer) Jesse Wakeman. The buzz was good enough then that an 88-minute expansion is now arriving in arthouse venues – after playing at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and winning the Audience Award at AFI Fest – as a four-act drama, full of squirm-inducing provocations surrounding an extended, uncomfortable reunion. It’s appropriate that snow-capped Mount Etna is erupting the same time two childhood friends are reconnecting in a wintry Rhode Island town.
Returning back to his hometown after a 20-year absence, city finance slicker Peter Letang (Wakeman) is having a bad day. He’s arrived to unload his late grandmother’s home and settle her affairs, but he’s experiencing a massive amount of suckage. A lost wallet. A frozen car. A long distance friend unwilling to wire him a few bucks so he can return to his urban creature comforts. All conspire to extend his short, overnight trip into a dance with the devil. A forced walk across the street finds him groveling at the doorstep of high school chum Donald Treebeck (Avedisian), a brother who can’t spare a dime but has plenty of time to share. Odd fellow Donald is a weird, loquacious, and seemingly uninhibited country mouse, and Peter makes every effort to distance himself from him. It’s a deer-in-the-highlights situation. As expected, his escape plans go awry as the duo shuffle about town and meet up with an assortment of exes and other stuck-in-town acquaintances in between awkward visits to a local eateries, a funeral home, an assisted-living facility where Nona lived her last days, the bowling alley where Donald works, an old sewer haunt, and a church social where Peter tries to impress the gullible and drunken Kristin (Louisa Krause), the young realtor trying to offload his grandma’s house.
The dialogue is mostly one-sided from the soft-headed, unkempt, and often repellant local, a result, perhaps, of too much heavy metal in his music through the years. Meanwhile, the prodigal son with a stick up his butt plays an often-silent uptight capitalist, who probably has as many friends in the unnamed town as he has gathered in the years since he has departed it. Because, you know, friends can be so irritating.
Director Avedisian pushes the envelope to dig into the downward relationship brewing in his film, whether it’s an abusive boss raging at his employee, or a handgun pointed in an disturbing direction. And every time Peter pulls away, the writers (Kyle Espeleta shares the credit with Avedisian and Wakeman) create a strange contrivance which brings Donald flinging back into his life. This includes an amusing masquerade involving Peter’s grandmother when she was at the nursing home.
I hesitate to call Donald Cried a dark comedy (quite a few critics have), as it has some heavy baggage attached to it. I don’t recall laughing much. No matter, as you have to admire Avedisian for pushing his repulsive character beyond the limits of social acceptance (as far as Peter is concerned), and for directing such a focused drama as a first feature. All along the film’s daring and deliberately paced way you’re expecting something to crash along the icy roadways. The filmmakers are pushing a lot of brazen shards of glass – be they damaged minds or depressing relationships – in the viewer’s direction. Thank goodness for some momentary diversions when some marijuana helps loosing up the characters’ inhibitions, but it will take more than some weed to cure the problems that exist between the boys-men.
Donald Cried is an examination of the loneliness and destructiveness of small town life, of relationships gone sour. The cherry blossoms don’t bloom here, but there’s still hope in the town’s dysfunctional air that something may blossom out of the pain everyone is suffering here.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).