It’s a known fact that one out of every three indie films is essentially a low budget riff on The Big Chill – a group of childhood friends reunite to memorialize the passing of someone or some place and end up ruminating on the passing of their shared youth as revelations and truths come to light. It’s an easy formula in addition to being easy on the budget, but the risk is that your film will get lost amid the crowd of similar ensemble pieces without ever finding its own voice.
Daniel (Ryan Eggold, The Blacklist) recently lost his parents in a car accident, and after their lakeside cabin is foreclosed upon he plans one last blow-out for the friends who spent time with him there before splitting and going their separate ways. One by one they arrive for the weekend, each with their own memories and baggage. Tom (Beck Bennett, Saturday Night Live) is a crass slacker recently fired by his own father, James (Brett Dalton, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is a self-centered reality TV star, Abby (Erin Darke) and Martin (Will Brill) are married but suffering from initially unspoken marital troubles and Charley (Jessy Hodges) is the wild girl eternally in need of nighttime company. And then there’s Olivia (Britt Lower), Daniel’s old flame and the one he hopes can lift his hopes and spirits in these dark times. Of course, that was before she arrives with a plus one in the form of a fiance named Henry (Reid Scott, Veep).
Beside Still Waters throws these seven old friends and one outsider into a blender with equal portions of nostalgia, humor and heart resulting in a tale that explores the dramas and laughs we find and the ones that find us. A good script and an even better cast make for a somewhat compelling and entertaining weekend at the cabin, but the 76 minute running time hurts more than helps as this mini-vacation ends in a rushed manner for just about everyone involved.
The film opens with voice-over from Daniel mentioning Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, and when combined with an early scene showing him staring at a photo of the famed writer the result is a foreboding patina that settles over the days and film to come. That concern fades though as his friends arrive, hugs and smiles are exchanged and the gang moves forward with alcohol-fueled fun. A plan is hatched to help give Daniel another shot at Olivia, but by the next morning everyone has some secret they’re hiding or in desperate need of sharing.
Director Chris Lowell and co-writer Mohit Narang have crafted a natural-feeling script for the most part that values honesty over trite drama, and while some occurrences here are expected they never feel manufactured. The actors are just as responsible for making it work as they feel like old friends almost immediately, and not just of each other. Like the best ensembles it’s easy to see our own friends or even ourselves in the group and in their interactions with each other. There’s kindness between them, but the sad glances that come with time and history are just as visible.
The risk in honest characters is of going too far in an uncomfortable direction – of becoming unlikable – and while the film mostly rights itself by the end the inherent collective cruelty behind the plan mentioned above is a difficult action for the characters to come back from. That it’s played for laughs is a bit irresponsible too, not in the grand moral sense but just narratively-speaking as it leaves an indelible black mark on those involved even as the film sweeps it beneath a rug. Every ensemble needs an asshole, but not everyone should be an asshole.
The other misstep here, and arguably the bigger one, is contained in the third act. It’s not what happens that’s the issue, it’s what doesn’t. Problems arise for everyone at the cabin as dramas they’ve let bubble within burst out over the weekend. No viewer should expect (or want) every issue to be resolved by the end credits, and this is especially the case when those resolutions feel false or rushed. Real poignancy builds to an intense confrontation, but only one character gets an honest catharsis out of it all. The rest seem instantly transformed, problems absolved or forgotten off-screen while our attention was diverted elsewhere.
Beside Still Waters grows a bit choppy in the third act, but like the best ensemble films the ensemble itself is enough of a reason to travel these rough narrative waters. The skinny-dipping, humorous exchanges and a ridiculous game of “whiskey slap” help too though.
The Upside: Well acted ensemble piece; some funny and kind moments including a very sweet bit involving upside down faces; honest; short run-time helps things move at a brisk pace
The Downside: Unappealing actions leads to unlikable characters; short run-time seemingly doesn’t allow time for third act arcs either
On the Side: The film ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to cover post-production costs.