O Sister, Where Art Thou?
When a girl gets dumped hard by her soul mate, she may respond by sitting for hours on the cold tile of her kitchen floor, eating ice cream by the fistful; she may call in sick at work for a week so she can spend her days at home watching awful movies amid piles of soggy Kleenex reaching nearly to the ceiling; she may call her girlfriends at all hours, sobbing into the phone until she has exhausted every last drop of sympathy they have to give; she may have sex with the first sleazy guy who'll take her—or the first dozen sleazy guys. When a guy is dumped by his soul mate, he may do all of these things (well, except for the having lots of sex part, but he would if he could). Typically, however, he'll take his despair to heights of wretchedness girls can scarcely comprehend. He'll forgo shaving, showering and washing his hair until he resembles a folkloric creature who lives under a bridge. His cupboards will go bare as every item of food in his home ends up smeared face-down on his living room carpet. He will bellow in the night and smoke and drink until he has just about rotted his throat out. His home will in short order transform into a nightmarish den of abject despair.
When we meet Louis (Patrick Belton), he is in the full, post-dump spiral. Never a happy or even particularly functional personality, he depended on his soul mate to get him through the day in one piece. Now she is gone, and the pain is so unbearable he can bear it no longer. He's seconds away from ending it all when there comes a reprieve; Louis' soul mate knocks on his door, asking to borrow his car. With an uncanny shrewdness, Louis sets to work doing everything he can to snare her back into his life for good. It's a squirmily compelling dramatic scenario, made all the more twisted by one little detail: Louis' soul mate is his sister.
The suggestion of incest—and imminent violence, too—hangs over Solitude like a roiling storm cloud; Louis and his hapless sister, Hilary (Mary Thornton), adore and detest each other beyond all reason, and as they snipe at each other, we can never be certain if they are about to tear each other's throats out like wild dogs or screw each other like jackrabbits in heat. It's tough to say which would be more awful (or dramatically satisfying), but the level of intensity between them seems non-sustainable—it has to go somewhere eventually. But being brother and sister, they can't kill each other and they can't screw each other, so they are trapped together, and the unwholesome feelings between them just grow and grow.
Things get terribly Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when this tragic twosome brings in a third party (a soft-spoken, hippie, artist chick called Soledad) as an unwitting witness, and they proceed to traumatize the hell out of her; like Edward Albee's play and Mike Nichols' film adaptation, Solitude has a queasy, claustrophobic feel that makes you just want to get the hell out at the same time that you absolutely must find out what's going to happen next. While Thornton is competent if not exactly Liz Taylor in the acting department and poor Ronne Orrena as Soledad is often as flat as a diet soda left sitting out for half a day, the film rockets along on the strength of Belton, a truly magnetic actor perhaps best known previously for a smallish part as a smug college kid who (literally) turned into a troglodyte in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After some slow opening moments, the action really gets going once Louis and Hilary reunite, and before very long at all, you know you're in the presence of a movie you'll never forget, no matter how hard you try. It's not a date movie (well, unless it's a very strange date), and it's not fun exactly, but Solitude is nonetheless something wonderfully awful, like overhearing the neighbors have one of those arguments where all the really bad stuff comes bubbling to the surface, the kind of argument any decent person would hate themselves for savoring.
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The Book of Stars also concerns damaged siblings attempting to care for each other in their own clumsy fashion, but while it has an undeniable darkness to it, this picture reaches for (and achieves) a kind of transcendence while Solitude is happy to send us careening straight down to the depths of hell. Mary Stuart Masterson is Penny, a former poet who has slid into prostitution to support her ailing teenage sister and employs illegal substances to dull the pain of her existence. Like the people around Penny, we care for her even as we're frustrated by her tendency to do crappy things on a fairly consistent basis; not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold, Penny's heart is composed of something more like highly tarnished brass. Meanwhile, Penny's sister, Mary (Jena Malone), has a remarkably sunny disposition for a girl whose cystic fibrosis will in all likelihood kill her before she reaches 16; she's scared of dying, but she seems almost equally worried about the plight of an astronaut who is adrift, Major Tom-like, in space or with the fact that her own new boyfriend has begun making eyes at Penny—and Penny doesn't really seem to mind.
The charms of The Book of Starsare of a kind that is very difficult to describe second-hand. A picture in which D.B. Sweeney turns up as a poetry-spouting convict sounds like something one should avoid in principle, but in practice, it's something rather marvelous. A picture in which a girl is shown coughing up sticky lumps of phlegm in close-up—twice—also sounds like a sorry way to spend an evening, but the fact that the picture does include such vile stuff only makes its sweet side that much sweeter. After all, which is more satisfying: a fine meal or the first fine meal you've had after a week of being too sick to eat? The picture's director grouses elsewhere in these pages that a vastly inferior, truncated version of the picture is now making the rounds, and this screening at the Newport Beach Film Festival is pretty much the only chance you'll have to see The Book of Stars as its makers intended it. Do them—and yourself—a favor, and savor this shooting star while you have the chance.
Solitude was written and directed by Susan Kraker and Pi Ware; produced by Hilary Six; and stars Patrick Belton, Mary Thornton and Ronne Orenna. Screening as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880. www.newportbeach filmfest.com. April 7, 3:30 p.m. $8; The Book of Stars was directed by Michael Miner; written by Tasca Shadix; produced by Marie Cantin; and stars Mary Stuart Masterson, Jena Malone, Karl Geary and D.B. Sweeney. Screens April 6, 5 p.m. $8.
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