Revenge of the Nerds

Good Grief goes deep underground

It's a great way to get a punk rock band going: get a bunch of your friends together; put in a couple of years of very dedicated work; write about something that means a lot to you; and then pile into a minivan for a no-budget, grassroots, do-it-yourself tour. That's how Portland filmmaker Andrew Dickson made his movie. And now it's coming soon to anything but a theater near you.

"John Waters got his start this way," Dickson says, "showing up to college campuses and showing a Divine movie. The idea is to educate and inspire other kids to start making films. Even if someone hates it, that's a good thing—at least it'll make them feel one way or the other about DIY filmmaking."

And even if his film—a skewed but somehow heartwarming coming-of-age piece called Good Grief—does conspicuously lack any 300-pound, shit-eating transvestites, it's still got a certain proudly iconoclastic Waters-esque spirit. With cast member (and noted author of the zine Burn Collector) Al Burian, Dickson is stopping in at various co-ops, record stores, art spaces, any place with a blank wall and a VCR to show his movie directly to the kids. It's a way to re-define what independent film really means, bypassing the cattle-call film-festival establishment in the hopes of moving one step closer to creating an underground, DIY film scene across America, he says.

"People can accept lo-fi music, but lo-fi film is another level—it engages all your senses," says Dickson. "I'm interested to see how people react to the notion of showing a film that is targeted to people into indie rock or hardcore music. There's the idea that these people would never buy a Rage Against the Machine album because it's on a major label, but they don't look at other media the same way. So it'll be interesting if people say that the film looks like shit because it doesn't look like Titanic."

But if it's not always pretty, Good Grief is strangely lovable. Dickson has a degree in a filmmaking from Wesleyan (alma mater of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon), so he knows what buttons not to push once he gets behind a camera. And, certainly, there are rough spots: there are certain cast members you will intensely wish to reach through the screen and strangle, and there are definitely a few booby-trap lines ticking away in the script. Behind the plot potholes and the pockets of cheesiness, though, there's also an affecting honesty and heart.

It's part after-school special, part midnight movie, says Dickson. A bunch of high school friends are on a last road trip together before graduation to search for a $100,000 statue supposedly buried in Idaho back in the '70s as some kind of PR gimmick. They're all nerds of varying degree, devoted to the fantasy role-playing game Monsters and Mayhem (you know, like Dungeons and Dragons, but without the trademark violations), but that nerdiness is starting to fade for everyone as they grow up and get into more mature pursuits: namely, sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

Well, almost everyone. Poor Chuck (an admirably intense David Grey, one of Dickson's longtime friends), the most socially obtuse and annoying nerd of all, can't quite amass the experience points necessary to advance to the next level of real life, and as his friends start to drift away, he starts to get desperate. "He rolled an 18 strength and an 18 charisma, but he doesn't even care!" he shrieks during one particularly trying gaming session.

There's a lot of cringing involved here: if you weren't this kid in high school, you definitely sat next to him, and that's the kind of connection Dickson wants you to make.

Besides a pretty thunderous soundtrack —if any band was ever destined to provide the theme music for frenzied, orc-disemboweling, fantasy sequences, it's the Fucking Champs—there's nothing too overtly "punk" about Good Grief, with nary a mohawk, safety pin or anarchy sigil to be found. But Dickson has tapped into something deeper and more human: the nerdy heritage of himself and a good portion of the cast members, and the almost universal experience of teenage alienation and self-delusion.

"I can relate to it, and I know a lot of people can relate to it," Dickson says. "There was one super punk rock kid in town, sort of the local 'angry guy,' who told his friends to tell me—he didn't want to tell me himself—that 'it's my favorite movie I've ever seen.'"

Good Grief screens at Koo's Art Cafe, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937; www.goodgriefmovie.com. Tues., 7:30 p.m. Free; $5 donation suggested.

 
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