The world of independent cinema is filled with movies labeled by way of comparisons to other directors who once walked the same low-budget halls. Violent crime films that play with structure are Tarantino-esque, movies with twentysomethings who ramble on aimlessly about their boring lives are grouped in with the Duplass brothers’ mumblecore films, bleak but blackly comic films about miserable people constantly being shat upon are Solondz-ish, and so on. Which is why it’s so refreshing when an indie comes along that eschews such easy comparison and instead finds a unique and original voice.
Ceremony is not that indie.
But while it owes an obvious debt of narrative and character to a director whose name rhymes with Wes Anderson, the film stands on its own as a fun and witty look at love whether it be first, young, or unrequited. It focuses on a young man filled with lies and falsehoods but through him finds an honesty about relationships often missing from comedies big and small. The film also features a breakout performance from Michael Angarano, a handful of fantastic supporting performances including a stellar turn from Reece Thompson, and that rare and elusive event… an appearance by Uma Thurman that doesn’t grate on the nerves.
“Are you in love with me, or am I just dragonflies?”
Sam Davis (Angarano) reads his latest unpublished childrens book to an audience of one, Marshall Schmidt (Thompson), before the pair take off on a road trip to the countryside. Marshall was violently mugged a year ago, and this trip serves as both a first step back into the world as well as a catch-up reunion for the two friends who haven’t seen each other in some time. At least, that’s what Marshall thinks… in reality Sam is using Marshall’s friendship, financial support, and car to stop an impending wedding. Zoe (Thurman) is ten to fifteen years Sam’s senior but also the woman he loves, and she’s about to marry a hotshot filmmaker named Whit (Lee Pace). Sam’s wildly confident persona gets them invited to stay at the giant summerhouse for the weekend, and he uses the next two days to try and rekindle Zoe’s feelings for him, avoid Whit’s manliness, and sever the only real friendship he has.
Sam is a young man compelled to act older and more accomplished towards everyone around him, and Angarano gives arguably the out-of-left-field performance of the year so far. He calls Marshall ‘kid’ and ‘silly goose’ and has begun smoking (but not inhaling). He speaks with the confidence of someone wiser, taller, and more traditionally good looking. “You look like trouble,” he tells a girl at the party, “I’d like to get into trouble.” Angarano, the amiable but generic actor from The Forbidden Kingdom and TV’s Will & Grace, is a brilliant surprise as the cocky bastard so focused on his first love that he neglects reality. His line delivery is a joy to watch as he balances the words with darting eyes and concerned glances, constantly playing the listener for maximum effect and the sole purpose of getting his way. He’s incredibly funny, but when the inevitable crack in the veneer comes it’s a near heartbreaking collapse.
Writer/director Max Winkler’s feature debut is just as self assured as its lead character, but it’s absent his false bravado and single-mindedness. The script is fairly basic in its premise but filled with fast-moving and funny dialogue and a warmth that grows from the idea of valuing friendships and relationships. And the vocal stylings of Kate Bush and Ringo Starr on your soundtrack are never a bad thing. There are gaps in Sam and Zoe’s past relationship that some viewers may find difficult to fill, but that absence of direct knowledge is far from damaging. The only other missteps are minor and usually involve the character of Whit whose over the top escapades and mannerisms are a bit too on the nose at times.
The character may be overdone, but Pace still manages to make Whit a fun combination of ego, artist, and scarf. Other supporting performances are even more entertaining including Jake Johnson as Zoe’s brother, Teddy, who offers perhaps the funniest line delivery possible of “Our parents are dead.” Thurman is fine as a woman whose past has returned to tempt her and is now forced to choose between someone she “rescued” and someone capable of rescuing her. Special mention though goes to Thompson who breathes life into what could have been just another “best friend” role making him someone whose issues, needs, and actions become just as relevant and humorous as Sam’s. Both young actors are fantastic individually, but together they play off each other with perfect pitch and balance.
Visual style aside, part of the Wes Anderson shtick involves eccentric, self-centered characters whose odd and aggressive personalities eventually give way to a hidden humanity when faced with a challenging emotional event. That template is clearly in play in Ceremony, but the difference is a matter of degrees. The world Winkler creates here is for the most part normal with the only real “character” being Sam. (Sure Marshall’s a little odd, but come on, the dude got jacked.) The stylized world of Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums is nowhere to be seen which leaves Sam a confused and lost young man alone in the real world with the rest of us. Which ultimately means he’s not that alone after all.
The Upside: Very funny; two fantastic performances from Michael Angarano and Reece Thompson; script is a smart, honest, and heartfelt look at first love; strong supporting characters and performances
The Downside: Film loses credibility when it asks the audience to believe someone could fall in love with Uma Thurman
On the Side: Jesse Eisenberg was originally set to play the lead role, but he left the film when David Fincher offered him The Social Network.