Snuff Is Painful and Messy and Brutal

Years ago, when Dave Barton was but a wee Weekly contributor, I saw a local play he directed that was loud, intense and quite disturbing. It's refreshing to see the writer/director has not changed one bit with Snuff, his feature-film debut. Several years in the making and produced on a shoestring budget, Snuff is an endurance test for the main characters onscreen, as I suspect it will be for the characters in the aisles of the Frida Cinema, where the unrated film will make its theatrical premiere. (In the interest of full disclosure, it's an OC Weekly presentation.)

Frida is a few blocks from the Empire Theater in Downtown Santa Ana, where co-artistic director Barton's Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. once mounted challenging, often critically lauded productions. As you'd imagine, 13 onetime Rude Guerrilla players make up the Snuff cast, including leading man Keith Bennett, whose Paul opens the film caring for his sore-spotted husband Jeff (Steven El Ray Parker).

Jeff's death from AIDS plunges Paul into a despair spiral as he attempts to deal with (or, actually, not deal head-on with) grief. Distractions such as drugs and sex with strangers will be familiar to those who have experienced or witnessed others experiencing similar straits. But leave it to Barton to amp things up several notches. Paul's one-night stand-ins are male and female and include several spectrums of the disabled community. What Paul is not prepared for is another damaged soul (physically and otherwise) falling in love with him.

Barton employs a neat storytelling device by introducing the limping Kevin (Scott Barber) through video journal entries that run before he and Paul actually meet and continue after the hopeless romantic has been rejected. (This story's headline comes from Paul's description of love in his kiss-off to Kevin.)

Snuff is filled with graphic sex scenes, and Paul and Kevin are fumbly in their first encounter—although, in real life, the actors are used to simulating intimacy. Barber says in the press notes that before he and Bennett went on to appear in dozens of plays together, they met at a Rude Guerrilla rehearsal for the Mark Ravenhill play Handbag. “He said, 'Hi, I'm Keith.' I said, 'I'm Scott,''' Barber recalls. “Then I had to pretend to go down on him.”

The long history together pays off in Barber and Bennett's natural, believable performances, which are the two best things going for Snuff. Their cohesion is more incredible when you consider Snuff was made mostly on weekends over several years.

Barton's film, which he estimates cost $50,000 to make, does have more going for it. What other movie includes a threesome, self-amputation and references to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther? I mean one not made by Pixar. Buckle yourself into a Frida seat, brace for the gut punches, and then hang out afterward to quiz Barton and some special guests about what the hell just happened during an audience Q&A.

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Another film that begins with grief over the death of a loved one is Little Men, which opens Aug. 19 in Irvine and Laguna Niguel. Director Ira Sachs also has experience in having two male characters dealing with the fallout from a fling (2012's Keep the Lights On), but no gay themes are evident in Little Men—at least not on the surface.

The story revolves around shy 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz), who moves with his family from Manhattan to the Brooklyn home of his grandfather, who has died. Attached to the residence is a dress shop that was rented from gramps by a Chilean woman (Paulina Garcia), whose outgoing son Tony (Michael Barbieri) strikes up a friendship with Jake. Once the boys are thick as thieves, their relationship is tested by a tenant dispute initiated by Jake's parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle).

The adult actors in Little Men are fine, with Garcia effectively putting up a stone face as she belittles her business foes, Ehle giving a sort of Laura Linney-lite performance (meant as a compliment) and Kinnear once again fully committing to a role, as he always does, whether unraveling as the dad in Little Miss Sunshine or suffering separation issues in Stuck On You.

My problem is with the teen actors. Taplitz has a look that will serve him well in the TV and movie business, and I haven't heard a New York accent like Barbieri's come out of someone so young since the Dead End Kids. But there are too many scenes in Little Men in which they seem to be reciting lines from a page, especially when they are with other young actors at—where else?—an acting school.

Ah, well, keep at it, boys, and some day, you'll be ready for Rude Guerrilla.

Snuff was written and directed by Dave Barton; and stars Keith Bennett, Scott Barber, Bryan Jennings, Christine Tanabe and Steven El Ray Parker. Premieres at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 285-9422; Thurs., Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m. $10.

Little Men was directed by Ira Sachs; written by Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs; and stars Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz. At Westpark 8 Cinemas, 3735 Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (844) 462-7342;; also at Rancho Niguel 8 Cinemas, 25471 Rancho Niguel Rd., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-0446; Opens Aug. 19. Check theater websites for show times and ticket prices.

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