Thursday, July 3, 2008

Not hi-5 nor finger-snap nor knuckle buckle nor forearm grab, The Guatemalan Handshake is hard to learn

It opens with a beguiling slow-motion plume of tire-squalled dust. It then glides through a montage of black and white expository tableau, sumptuous colour images and sonic elements that seem lovingly culled from scrapbooks for David Gordon Green’s first two movies: a little girl swinging over a river backwards through time or a demolition derby, the scenes arcing across the screen while the little girl—her name, which she’ll no doubt come to resent, is Turkeylegs—speaks through voice-over about her best friend Donald. What she says here is, in its way, crucial. There are three things Donald would like to see before he dies, Turkeylegs tells us, “a lake of chocolate, a turtle the size of a horse, and a trophy with his name on it.”

The Guatemalan Handshake unfolds in a Pennsylvania town, dividing its time between various representatives of its citizenry. The film’s catalytic event is a power surge that, in a compelling sequence, inspires a mist of varied voices that speak of malfunctioning appliances with the awe of hurricane survivors or pilgrims who’ve witnessed a miracle. Yet might the real, underlying catalyst that afflicts the characters in writer/director Todd Rohal’s feature debut be something more like a toxic spill? Judging from those reactors lingering in the background, maybe it was a nuclear accident? Something funky must have infected the water supply in these parts, because the local eccentricity meter is way into the red.

The flashback to Spank Williams’ failed public death, a grieving dog owner’s attending her own funeral, a story about Amish time travelers, a guy who sounds like he’s gonna have a coronary every time he talks, a photo of a man posing with Willie Mays and the world’s biggest chewing gum, a handicapped boy who explains that nose-picking is “awesome”—when do such bubbles of quirkiness reach critical mass? There are several inspired gags, like whenever Stool (Rich Schreiber), the movies’ most awkward date since Jackie Earle Haley, spontaneously takes off his shirt in some misguided act of foreplay—but a lot of these gags would probably work better if they weren’t all shoved into a single, heavily saturated comedy.

Rohal’s definitely gone out on a limb here, making something this unapologetically, warmly goofy, yet the goofiness rarely seems to serve much more than goofiness itself. On occasion this tack is so cartoonish that it only distances us further from the characters it purports to have affection for, like that grieving dog owner. Rohal’s story is basically a chain that links characters with accoutrements—a turtle, an electric car, a wheelchair, a headband—and a scattering of events, such as Donald’s disappearance following emotional trauma and a dog’s electrocution, or the double injury at the roller rink. Things feel most harmonious is when we get evidence of what may be Rohal’s true gift: his ability to nurture strong performances from a cast of mostly non-professionals, especially Katy Haywood, who plays Turkeylegs, and Sheila Scullin, who plays Donald’s estranged girlfriend Sadie. There’s also a very appealing performance from musician Will Oldham as Donald himself. Strikingly clean-shaven after his beardy turn in
Old Joy, Oldham looks and sounds so endearingly boyish here he could’ve walked right off the set of Matewan, a movie made when he was all of 16.

The Guatemalan Handshake is threaded together by themes of paternal anxiety—manifested in a pregnant woman participating in a demolition derby and the father of her unborn child absconding—and the letting go of childish things. Yet the film itself often feels stunted, closely guarding its own preciousness, retaining each and every affectation whether they actually gel together or not. If Rohal’s next film works better than this one, it will likely be because his eccentricities are the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.

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