Film Review – Among Ravens
Among Ravens is the type of micro-indie that normally goes unseen and unheard of and thus impacts nothing either positively or negatively. It’s a from-the-heart labor of love full of actors acting and a camera crew capturing the natural beauty of its surroundings, soaking up as much cinema as they can find around them. It’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers apparently never had a real human audience in mind, as it slowly drifts from one cringe inducing scene to another without making any real point of impact or displaying even the a shred of tonal confidence, as if it’s on a mission to be the least entertaining film ever made.
Wendy (Amy Smart) is bound and determined to keep her family together for the fourth of July and invites her ex-husband Saul (writer and co-director Russell Friedenberg) and his new wife Emma (Victoria Smurfit) to come to her lavish summer lake-house. Husband number two, Ellis (Joshua Leonard), is a neurotic trust-fund brat who feels emasculated by Saul’s overpowering stoicism and asserts his place in the broken family by calling himself ‘the provider’ in front of Saul and Wendy’s eleven year old daughter Joey (Johnny Sequoyah). Also along for the ride during this prickly weekend is Wendy’s directionless brother Hal (Calum Grant) and his hippie nympho girlfriend Saturn (Castille Landon). On the periphery there exists Chad (Will McCormack), a pure-as-diamond man-child who has no discernible ties to the family but who quickly becomes Joey’s best-friend and confidante.
The film’s first and most damaging mistake is in its attempt to depict a multi-stranded character study without a single interesting character to ever appear on screen. As if built from a list of hacky sit-com quirks, every character is only identified by an immediate shorthand: Wendy is tired and conflicted but trying to the right thing, Ellis is insecure and buffoonish but used to living in entitlement, Saturn is a flakey new-ager who goes on and on about astrology and her orgasms and, well, the list goes on.
The worst character of course is screenplay’s favorite, the magical idiot-savant, Chad. What is Chad’s thing? Chad films things and speaks in vague profundities. Between the repetitive scenes of bickering and gossip he wanders in and out of the movie with a twinkly piano score that follows him so he can make blunt metaphors, creepily filming the familial chaos that surrounds him, while remaining untainted by way of his naivety and innocents.
Chad’s place in the plot is that of objective voyeur; a mirror to expose the lies and contention between the other adults who have since lost their ability to find joy or convey sincerity while they mask their emotional brokenness. Besides being an original mash-up of Rainman, Forrest Gump and American Beauty’s camera-wielding teenager Ricky Fitts, what Chad’s inclusion in this plot reveals is the utter contempt Friedenberg has for his other characters. Sometimes writing difficult or unsympathetic characters can produce interesting results when a film’s moral questions are being challenged in an intellectual way, but here everyone is written to fail without any dimension or nuance, only to allow their creator to cypher himself into the story to judge and condemn their actions.
The film is softly-lit and captured in perfect, around-the-clock magic hour and occasionally the shimmer is superficially pleasing, but after a while the movie’s insistent digital color correction and lack of scenic diversity sterilizes the whole thing, making every shot look like the kind of stock photos you might find in a prepackaged frame at Sears. This, along with the dreary score and the mopey song selections weighs down the entire experience, locking away any hint of comedic irony begging to be set free.
I don’t always blame the performers for being unable to make this terrible script work. Amy Smart is actually pretty good in spots, but you can almost sense her trying to keep her eyes from rolling at some of things her character says. Russell Friedenberg, despite making a pig ear of a film, is best here as an actor and his portrayal as a bitter self-hating novelist occasionally creates a mirage of depth that disappears as soon as you look any closer. Unfortunately for them, every word of dialogue is achingly obvious as every character only speaks to explicate the themes. Even when the movie decides to settle in for some atmosphere we are treated to over-written voice-over delivered by the precocious Joey, comparing her family’s squabbles to the actions of birds.
What might have been intended to be something approximating an existential cousin of The Big Chill or last year’s August Osage County, in actuality, more closely resembles Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups on Prozac. Besides being unforgivably boring, Among Ravens is a film that’s frustratingly inside out, like an artificially-colored subtextual candy coating surrounding a sugary mass of empty calories.