SXSW Film Review – Gus
They say business and friendship don’t mix, but is there an idiom about mixing family and friendships? That is the situation presented in indie drama Gus, the directorial debut of Jessie McCormack, which screened at SXSW this year.
The story follows the uptight Lizzie (Radha Mitchell), who, despite her best efforts with her husband Peter (Jon Dore), has been unable to get pregnant. Upon discovering that her free-spirit best friend Andie (Michelle Monaghan) has gotten knocked up, she receives an unbelievable offer—Andie is willing to give up her child so Lizzie can adopt it.
There are many roads to success in the world of film; not every good movie has to be flawless from top to bottom. Great stories usually will carry a film pretty far even when other aspects are lacking; great performances can help a project rise above otherwise weaker material; effects-driven movies can entertain even when the stories or acting are subpar; and there are many other scenarios beyond these.
Gus falls into the second category, as a performance-driven movie. The film’s concept isn’t the most imaginative story conceived (sorry, pun intended), and the action ends up being fairly predictable, like a high-end Lifetime movie. But the performances take it from mundane to entertaining. It follows the principle of putting great people in good situations so that great things will happen. This isn’t to say the story or production is particularly flawed. Despite not having an extensive background in directing, McCormack’s debut is quite impressive. Not only did she direct the movie, but she wrote the script, and you can tell she has a history as an actress, because her writing feels geared toward characters who have a little bit more depth…sort of like someone who was writing a part for themselves.
While the premise is fairly straightforward, the film does touch on some very philosophical issues—what is the greatest sacrifice you are willing to give? How do your expectations of people influence your interactions with them? At its core, the film is a story about relationships, whether by blood (family) or by choice (marriage, friendship). It isn’t a commentary about one being better than the other, but about the strengths and weaknesses of both, and the troubles that arise when we as flawed individuals try to navigate the waters between the two. Not every film needs to be thought-provoking, but it certainly is a plus when a movie makes you reflect on who you are and what you truly believe in.
The success or failure of the film is largely left upon the relationship between Mitchell’s and Monaghan’s characters—whether it is relatable, believable, enjoyable. Despite being completely unrelatable to me, it excelled in the other areas. The film really highlights just how talented these actresses are; despite only having had a short pre-production period, they create characters that truly do feel like lifelong friends.
Taking this one step this further, the biggest strength of the movie is the casting. This should not be a surprise, since casting director Yesi Ramirez has worked on several noteworthy projects in recent years (The Descendants, 21 Jump Street), as well as some of my personal favorites, like the forgotten TV series Traffic Light, which sadly only lasted one season. Certainly having veteran actresses Mitchell and Monaghan in the leads were smart choices, but they even have some excellent picks for smaller parts, like Michael Weston (Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, Garden State), who portrays the most loveable jerk imaginable, as a recovering addict who can’t escape his brother Peter’s overbearing ways and finds a friend who understands him in Andie. Even though it is completely implausible, if they decided to give him his own spin-off movie, I would be completely on board.
The most fun part of the movie is definitely the time between Monaghan and Weston, but the greatest challenge was for Mitchell, who has to play the stick in the mud, but one who is also empathetic and endearing. This was the true showcase for McCormack’s skill as a writer, because when left to less skilled writers, it would be easy for this character to drift into shrew territory. Mitchell and Monaghan play excellent yin and yang to each other. They balance each other’s quirkiness while remaining plausible as friends. Gus is a great example of the old adage of playing to your strengths; despite not having the multi-million dollar budgets of other movies, the best execution still wins out in the end.
Despite presenting a somewhat predictable plot, Gus takes the audience on an emotional journey through the excellent work of its cast and the steady hand of its writer/director. The film probably isn’t going to light the film festival circuit on fire, but it is an enjoyable experience if you are willing to give it a chance.
Final Grade: B