VIOLENT DELIGHTS, VIOLENT ENDS
ROMEO'S DISTRESS (15)
Director: Jeff Frumess
Screenplay: Jeff Frumess
Starring: Anthony Malchar, Charese Scott-Cooper, Jeffrey Alan Solomon
Review: RJ Bland
Erotically chewing on a carrot. Humping a hollowed out melon. Dancing in a graveyard to a song called 'Cheesecake of Love'. These are all things that happen in the first half an hour of Jeff Frumess's debut feature film Romeo's Distress.
Described by Frumess himself as a 'Shakespearean, Gothic, Horror-Thriller', Romeo's Distress is as every bit the genre-bending and irreverent experience that you would expect – and hope for.
The film tells the story of a troubled and lonely young man called James, who, when he's not looking after his grandma, spends his days obsessing over a girl that he may (or may not) have had a relationship with in the past. Was it a great love affair that ended tragically? Or is she just a figment of his over active imagination? Whilst we're trying to figure this condundrum out, it becomes clear that there are several people out there who are watching him. Monitoring him. Even assaulting him. But why?
If history has taught us anything, it is that the more money spent on a movie doesn't necessarily make for a better movie. Some of the worst films are big budget affairs and some of the best are low-budget indie features. However, productions with limited budgets face a much tougher task. They don't have the luxury of hiring big stars or paying for professional sets or equipment. They have to use their ingenuity and imagination. And Romeo's Distress is a prime example that you don't have to have much money to produce a good film.
What really shines is the technical and creative talent of Director Jeff Frumess and his ultra small cew (there were just three of them!). The film itself is shot in black and white (apart from the occasional full colour flashback/dream sequence) which gives it an almost timeless feel. Frumess' direction is assured and confident. Enthusiastic young film makers sometimes have a tendency to experiment a little bit too much in their early films but Frumess is never afraid to just sit back and let his actors and the dialogue take centre stage. It's unobtrusive and efficient. However, when needed, he isn't afraid to mix things up a bit. An 'electrocution' scene late in the film is wonderfully realised and his close ups of James' grandma being spoon fed baby food is pleasingly grim. There's almost a David Lynchian feel to things at times.
The plot itelf is handled in a measured way. Although we are in no doubt at the beginning of the film that James is besotted with a beautiful woman, she only appears in full colour dream sequences. Whilst his infatuation is very much real, we aren't initially sure if she is. And if she is, what the history is between the two characters. Romeo's Distress teases this story line out quite sedately – but gives us hints along the way. His visit to a therapist who tells him 'you have a lot of freedom now James. Do you want that to change?' indicates a troubled past for our lead. The conversations between the two men stalking James also throw up several pressing questions.
Amongst all of this, the film is something of an exploration of love. And what it is like to be in love. It may not be conventional – as for a lot of the running time, we are not entirely sure if Jane is even real or if the love is reciprocal, but it doesn't matter in a way. 'Don't waste your love on somebody, who doesn't value it.' the bard tells us in Romeo and Juliet. And this theme is something that underpins the whole film. Love is all consuming and it has an overbearing effect on James' life. Joy, passion and despair all mixed up into one all consuming package.
The acting on display here is rather impressive too. Anthony Malchar delivers a solid performance as the quirky but slightly unhinged lead – all the more impressive considering it is his first feature film. There's something slight Woody Allen-like about the young actors performance too, which is never a bad thing. And then we have Jeffrey Alan Solomon, whose quiet menace and intensity acts as a great counterbalance to the idiosyncracy of our lead. Quite often, with ultra low budget films, the extras and minor parts tend to feel a little bit 'amateur' but here none of them can be accused of that.
Then we have the music and sound. It's one of those things that often goes under the radar. One of the surest signs of a film-maker who isn't confident in their ability to convey emotion on screen through their characters/script, is to overcompensate through music. Luckily, Romeo's Distress has the benefit of the experience and talent of Nick Bohun, who has worked in the sound department on a vast number of projects over the last five or six years.
We don't get any uninspiring filler music drowning out muffled dialogue. What we get is clear, crisp audio and a substantial and poignant soundtrack which really adds another layer of tension, melancholy and professionalism to proceedings.
Of course, Romeo's Distress won't be everyone's cup of tea – and it is by no means a perfect movie. You will either see the plot as an intriguing genre blend or you will find it too peculiar and unconventional. It's certainly an acquired taste at times. The lead character may not connect with some people either. He's an oddball, there's no denying that. That's the intention, but not everybody is going to find it easy to empathise with a guy who spends his time shagging melons and dancing around graveyards singing songs. And whilst the conclusion of the film is logical and satisfying, there's something about the last colour scene that feels almost too weird and comedic. It doesn't ruin the end as such, it just feels a little unnecessary.
However, those minor gripes aside, this is a movie that fans of alternative and innovative film will dig in a big way. Proof that you don't need a big budget (or much of a budget at all) to produce an engaging and creative feature.