SXSW Film Review – Life in Color
Life in Color
Katharine Emmer taps into something real in Life in Color (2015). Written, directed, co-produced and co-starring Emmer herself, she tackles that very strange time in a person’s life where direction and purpose are not always defined. We’ve seen plenty of coming of age stories where characters come to grips with who they are and what they want to be. But the unique thing here is how well Emmer depicts how scary things can get. Not knowing where to go or what to do, having talent but no drive to utilize it, wondering where the rent money is going to come from – these are aspects I found myself strongly attaching to. No question I’ve been in that position before. Heck, sometimes I feel like I’m still in that position.
Emmer plays Mary, a person just about to enter her thirties and seeing the rest of her life coming full speed at her. Mary once went to school for architecture but never got a degree, and has spent the last ten years in babysitting/nanny positions. The monotony of her job has left her listless and detached. In an unwise move, Mary hides away during a birthday party to smoke pot with the hired clown who was there to entertain the kids. Caught red-handed, both Mary and the clown are relieved of their duties.
The clown turns out to be Homer (Josh McDermitt), a struggling comedian who has lost touch with his material and is battling a severe case of stage fright. Partly because she sees some of herself in Homer (and partly because she believes he was responsible for getting her fired), Mary decides to link up with him in a last ditch effort. Practically squatting at the apartment of Adam (Adam Lustick) Homer’s high school friend, the two try to figure out a way to get their lives back on track.
The narrative plays fairly straightforward, as both Mary and Homer find a connection that helps them get through their struggles. But it’s those “struggles” that are the most engaging. Early on, both Emmer and McDermitt play their characters with a convincing level of hopelessness. They’re almost embarrassed with how they let things get out of hand. That’s the key to their bond. The very best scenes are when Mary and Homer share in their depression. Emmer’s dialogue is sparse but effective, there’s plenty of dialogue but neither character recites a script. Everything progresses naturally, and the way Mary and Homer express their feelings together rings with authenticity.
Those moments are so good that when things pick up and opportunity arises, it comes with in air of disappointment. Emmer appears much more interested in the heavier material compared to the lighter, comedic elements. When Mary and Homer share a happy moment, Emmer often settles for a quick montage to get through it. Whether it’s frolicking through the grass, exploring nearby landmarks, or splashing around in a pool, the scenes where the two share a laugh were the least interesting.
Is it weird to say that I preferred to see Homer and Mary in a funk? They exist in a club where they are the only members. When the tone got lighthearted and more characters came in, it broke the magic. One plot thread involves Homer attempting to enter a stand up comedy competition put together by Adam. Adam Lustick’s performance as this character – while not bad in a vacuum – belongs in a different movie. Mary and Homer are grounded and realistic, where Lustick’s performance is geared toward a slapstick comedy. In fact, the competition takes away from everything that made us invested in the first half. Much is made of Homer’s reluctance to get back on stage and his relationship with his ill father. But all of that is secondary to the main crux of the story, and that’s the relationship between Mary and Homer. In fact, Homer’s dilemma on stage distracts us from Mary’s own arc. The narrative loses interest in her to the point that when we reach the climax, she’s barely involved.
Emmer trips on some romantic-comedy tropes to generate drama in the second half, which is too bad because Life in Color is better than that. The film is dedicated to Emmer’s mother, and when things are going really good we can sense that personal side being injected onto the screen. It’s been said that we can’t appreciate the happy times in life without experiencing the sad, and that’s what my take away is here. While it settled on a more traditional closing act, it’s when Mary and Homer struggled that truly adds heft and emotion here. Sleeping on a couch or in a car, selling personal items to strangers, cooking meals out of spare ingredients –I’m sure both Mary and Homer will look back on those experiences fondly, because they went through them together.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director/writer/co-star Katharine Emmer from SXSW 2015.