Max Winkler’s debut feature, Ceremony(2010), puts a new spin on the old coming-of-age tale with edgy sensitivity, cryptic characters and a script replete with subtle ambiguity.
The plot is familiar. 23-year-old Sam (Michael Angarano) is a budding author of children’s books, but much like with Sam himself, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy, or for that matter, loveable, about his fairytale characters. One day, Sam invites his long neglected friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) for a weekend holiday on Long Island so they can reestablish their friendship. Unlike Sam, Marshall is sweet and vulnerable, but with an unusual dark side that we soon learn stems from a horrible experience.
When Sam accidentally bumps into an older woman named Zoe (Uma Thurman) – his soon-to-be-betrothed, former lover – Marshall discovers that Sam’s intentions may not be as wholesome as they appear.
The fact that Winkler is the son of famed actor-director, Henry (the Fonz) Winkler, does not spell automatic success for the enterprising filmmaker. This seems apparent to
Max Winkler, who is definitely forging his own path with the highly ambitious, Ceremony. And while it is far from polished, with some scenes running way too slow and several shots so close that all proportion is lost, for the most part, the good points far outweigh the bad.
First and foremost, Winkler’s script is tight and strong, even when he seems not to explain situations adequately. One example is how Sam and Zoe initially met. Zoe’s fiancé and, later, husband, Whit (Lee Pace) is never fully illuminated, either. We know he is a wealthy, somewhat pompous, documentary filmmaker, but he also has a gentle side. It is when Zoe tells Sam that Whit has always known about their affair – then and now – that we wonder why Whit is so patient with the woman he marries. The wedding ceremony itself is filled with ambiguity, making us wonder all the more about Zoe, Whit, and the intentions of young Sam. But Winkler’s choice not to elaborate is by no means a weakness, but rather, a major strength. Other enticing aspects are Eric D Johnson’s superb musical score, which often gives a French New Wave flair to the film, and Winkler’s natural ability to create multi-level complexity in his characters. This is particularly evident in Whit, Zoe and her very mysterious and interesting brother, Teddy (Jake M Johnson).
Many critics have compared Winkler’s film to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, but to do so misses the point. If anything Ceremony display shades of Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby, with its beautiful but multifarious characters, that use each other and move on.
Alfred Hitchcock also comes to mind, in terms of indeterminate characters that initially appear one way but turn out to be something very different underneath the surface. As for the comic side of Ceremony, that too is unclear – since we are never quite certain whether to laugh or cry.
Son of Henry or not, Max Winkler is definitely a force to be reckoned with, and someone to watch in the future.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.