Above, clockwise: The Extra Man (photo courtesy of 3 Arts Entertainment), Norman, and Bass Ackwards
Review by Ryan Wilson

When F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase "All The Sad Young Men" for his third collection of short stories, he probably never could have imagined how his sort of protagonist might one day dominate the world of independent film. A collection of sad young men dominated the feature films shown at last week's Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan.

I'll begin with the film that owes the most to Fitzgerald, entitled the Extra Man starring Paul Dano, as a young academic who arrives in Manhattan, aspiring to recreate, as literally as possible, a Fitzgerald novel. He even narrates his life in his head as Nick Carraway would in The Great Gatsby. The only problem is that he lives in 2010 and has a fetish for cross-dressing. Set for a limited release on July 30, The Extra Man is a quirky comedy, to say the least, but well worth a look due to a larger than life performance by Kevin Kline, who plays Henry Harrison, an aging playwright who rents Dano’s young man a room. Kline's Henry is also a bit of a dandy. He makes his living escorting wealthy widows about town. His service is called being an "extra man." Though the story can get irritable and distracting at moments, nothing entertains quite like seeing characters stubbornly living behind their times. Kline is absolutely hysterical at this. He hasn't been this funny since A Fish Called Wanda. Dano, meanwhile, struggles as the lead. His character's intellectual desire to be a traditional gentleman and his base urges to experiment with the transsexual lifestyle are terrifically at odds, but he's simply too meek to capture our attention the way Kline does.

At least his character has some purpose. That’s more than I found in three other films about three young slackers.

Skateland, which will also see a limited release later this summer, is set in 1983, in a small Texas town where the young men are far too comfortable to want out. If you're wondering whatever happened to those 1970s teenagers in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, this is essentially it. The film's lead, Rich, is content to manage the local skating rink between parties. He's forced to grow up when his parents divorce and the rink closes for good. Skateland looks and sounds right, but the story is a retread of nearly every coming of age tale ever told. There's a girlfriend, played by Twilight’s Ashley Greene, encouraging him to be more, there's the solid group of drinking buddies who wisecrack, and of course we have small town bullies who want to rumble over the slightest affront. Rich, as a character, is bland, and the script is as lazy as the kids it depicts.

Slightly better is the film Tug. Filmed entirely in Holland, Michigan, it focuses on a 25-year-old, played by Sam Huntington, who's also drifting along day by day. His life plans aren’t so much the focus as is his choice of girlfriends. He’s entirely happy dating the girl-next-door played by Sarah Drew, yet he’s stalked by his ex-girlfriend, played by Haylie Duff, who still excites him physically. Hence the title Tug. The performances are strong in the film, but it’s hard to keep dramatizing this romantic tug of war, and the story begins repeats itself

The film Bass Ackwards was the best of the festival's slacker stories. It’s the simple story of Linas, a young man rejected by his girlfriend and his friends. With nothing else to do, he forlornly packs a 1976 Volkswagon mini-bus, and drives East toward his parents. On his way he encounters a variety of strange characters who don't really cohere in any way other than to let Linas explore different aspects of American life. In other words, there's little plotting in the film, and no real dramatic moments. It's simply a realistic road trip about what being young and alone feels like. Though Linas's trip feels too long at times, I preferred the lyrical approach of Bass Ackwards to Tug and Skateland’s overly premised tales of what Earnest Hemingway once called "The Great American Boy-Man."

But the best of the sad young men films that I saw were stories concerning teenagers.

The film Cherry was filmed in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It follows the freshman year of 17-year-old engineering phenomenon Aaron Milton, who makes friends with a non-traditional classmate named Linda. Aaron is attracted to Linda, but Linda has a 14-year-old daughter named Beth, who develops an intense crush on him. In case you can't tell, the title Cherry refers to the loss of sexual innocence amid this complicated love triangle. The filmmakers could have easily cheapened the material, a la the American Pie movies, but instead they focus of the emotions of each player. Think Real Genius meets a very blue-collar version of Gilmore Girls, and you have this very intense, yet very sweet film.

But no film quite moved me at the festival the way that Norman did. The title character is Norman, who is wiser than his years in high school. He's gotten this way by losing his mother in a car crash, as well as by taking care of his father who is dying of stomach cancer. Yet at school he's a misfit, and one day he lies and tells his classmates that he is the one dying of stomach cancer. He even goes so far as to shave his head to carry on the act after he gains affection from the lie. There are some disturbing scenes in Norman, but what hit me was how emotionally powerful the film is concerning Norman's relationship with his father and his relationship with a classmate, played by Emily VanCamp. I've rarely been so moved by the small thrills and large torment of a high school romance. Dan Byrd, who plays Norman, deserves a larger audience, as does the film.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010