Some films – many films – are less than the sum of their parts. downtown owl, the story of a new teacher’s bickering and drinking and warm, awkward encounters in a fictional North Dakota town, stands out for being the exact sum of its parts. This isn’t knocking; These ingredients are always captivating, fueled by a playful and dynamic cinematic sensibility and a strong cast, with Lily Rabe taking center stage with vivid luminosity and plenty of humor. Raven is also directing the film alongside her life partner and fellow actor Hamish Linklater, and the Tyros directors manage to thread a tricky needle with their first feature film, navigating the divide and intersection between excitement and stillness, between cartoon brightness and navigate fear.
The source material, essayist Chuck Klosterman’s 2008 novel of the same name, is less a compelling narrative and more a vivid collection of personality types filtered through a hyperlocal 1980s vibe. Hamish’s script ditches most of the pop culture commentary to focus on the characters, while putting a Great Plains spin on familiar indie themes – misfits, wrongdoing, breakdowns and breakthroughs. The white snowstorm on the prairie that accompanies the story casts a fateful shadow that recedes into the background of the sometimes crazy and sad events, the effect of which comes to the surface and is clearly felt in the film’s flash-plexus closing sequence.
A scream and full of heart.
The main story begins in September 1983, when Julia Rabia von Rabe arrives in tiny Owl for a semester-long teaching job at the high school, having been recommended to the principal by her professor-dad (a brief, comical twist on Linklater). The timing of this residency, she tells almost every adult she meets, is eagerly designed to give her husband (unnamed, unseen, unheard) space while he begins the final rounds of his PhD in Milwaukee. This is more than the blizzard, this is the shadow that hangs over the story: the way a large part of Julia’s marriage, including the possibility of children, depends on the career plans of her spouse, who seeks tenure.
The separation between them is as clear as the rural daylight on their drunken late-night calls home. If you’ve been mourning the classic cinematic device of the one-way phone call—the stuff of which indelible movie moments have been made over the centuries and whose power simply cannot be surpassed by glimpses of on-screen text messages—Hamish’s screenplay revitalizes that tactic in , and Raven does an excellent job of Julia’s tense conversations with her husband, father and mother, culminating in a harrowing sequence in which she hovers precariously over the edge, or perhaps at the very bottom.
In the novel, Julia and the other two main protagonists – a student and a 70-year-old innkeeper – do not interact; this is the case here to varying degrees. The two sensitive men are played to understated perfection: August Blanco Rosenstein as the sad-eyed Mitch Hrlicka, the school’s reluctant backup quarterback, and Ed Harris as Horace Jones, whose quietly routine life is marked by a harrowing turn of events on the home front.
As for the other men in town, Julia gets a revealing introduction on her first visit to Hugo’s, a downtown pub that the manager warned her about. For her faculty colleague Naomi, played by Vanessa Hudgens in delightfully rude Motormaul mode, Hugo’s is the center of the Owl universe. Minutes after her first gig at the bar, Julia encounters a crowd of lonely single men with alarming nicknames, two of whom are willing to take her to Valley City to see her over the weekend ANDthe year-long hit film you’ve heard so much about.
But when dashing bison breeder Vance Druid (Henry Golding) enters the bar in a cowboy hat and Wrangler shoes, Julia finds herself in a new state of vigilance. She heeds Naomi’s admonition to “live a little” and takes her step. Raven is in full comedic flow with Julia’s halting advances, and the tension is heightened by subtitles in the form of neon signs that mark the contrast between what she’s saying to Vance and what she really means. It’s a clever way of highlighting the gap between her goofy exuberant candor and his extreme reticence. But after a few promising, albeit one-sided conversations, Julia interprets this reluctance as rejection. Her deep disappointment with Vance is fueled in part by her unspoken anger at her husband.
Like Mitch, who would rather play basketball than the gridiron – a blasphemous fondness of the football-adoring Owl – Vance has a mostly unfortunate association with high school quarterbacking. Julia learns of this backstory of shame and glory from Horace, who also breaks his generally balanced stance and denounces the school’s coach, Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock), as a “real sex criminal.” Mitch embarks on a mission to hold Laidlaw accountable for the pregnancy of Tina (Arden Michalec), the classmate he’s in love with – a mission that feels disjointed for both the character and the film. He is supported and encouraged by fellow students Eli (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose feverish hyperverbalism is reminiscent of Naomi’s, and Rebecca (Arianna Jaffier), a self-proclaimed genius who whispers in public spaces like Juliet’s classroom.
The storylines can feel both muddled and disjointed, but whether they’re stitched together with the greatest possible fluidity is less important than how the characters’ different, conflicting ways of communicating always reveals more about them. In this portrait of a remote and isolated place, Eli and Naomi’s machine-gun chatter reveals a spectacular confidence, but fueled by despair and conflicts of the sort found in high school melodrama.
That Rabe and Linklater, accomplished veterans of stage and screen, elicited such nuanced work from their performers comes as no surprise. But they did much more than that as helpers, with cleverly used meta-touches that hit intended chords and a fluid visual language for this made-up small-town world (performed by the Minneapolis-St. Paul region). Production designer Francesca Palombo’s contributions excel in their lived-in detail and touch of grandeur. And the cinematography by Barton Cortright (known for his formalist work with Ricky D’Ambrose, including Cathedral) uses widescreen formatting in a way that defies rural stereotypes and embraces the slightest hint of the surreal.
all about downtown owl is both earthbound and heightened, many of its scenes being driven by the unexpected interweaving of sadness and joy, or anger and aching sweetness. Take the long shot of a conversation between Tina and Mitch in the school gym that leaves almost everything unsaid between them, or the striking diamond-shaped window at the head of a hospital bed that acts as a gateway between flesh and spirit. And with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the soundtrack is an invigorating and evocative mix of Americana and, most notably, Elvis Costello, the latter being the only artist heard by a key character.
While the characters’ overblown intrigue missions aren’t always crystal clear, Julia Rabia’s unraveling is a narrative cracker. Rabe, who played the title role so memorably Miss Stevens — she played a high school teacher who is in danger of making some very bad decisions — dives in here with gusto. So does Julia, all dressed up, with teased hair and skin-tight outfits, waiting for Vance to walk through the door at Hugo’s while the bartender (Ben Shaw) praises her “stripper look.”
In downtown owlRaven and Hamish capture a self-contained world bursting at the seams. And Rabe’s performance shows us how someone bounces off the narrow city walls and begins to find themselves, from self-reprimanding facial gymnastics after every perceived faux pas to a drunken meltdown – where else? – the high school football field. She may never remember her mother Jill Clayburgh as much as she does here, bringing a heartbreaking vibe to the film. Who better to listen when Golding’s broken, hurt man confides in a few words, “I thought my life would turn out better than it is”? Who better to make him smile?