In a week filled with documentaries and experimental features, I was glad to find that the Friday afternoon screening at the first LFF press week was a laid-back, quirky, slacker road movie set in East LA with a soundtrack consisting of Dinosaur Jr, Wilco, Leonard Cohen, and a host of other indie rock legends.
Passenger Side is the story of Michael Brown (Adam Scott), who is awoken on the morning of his 37th birthday by a phone call from his annoying, ex-drug addict brother, Toby (Joel Bissonnette, brother of director Matt). Toby persuades Michael to ditch his girlfriend and spend the day driving him around on some mysterious mission. What follows is a fairly lackadaisical, but never nebulous, talkative journey around the outskirts of Los Angeles.
I say the story is lackadaisical because the conversation mostly revolves around witty banter (I hate that word, but it’s Tuesday evening so we are sticking with it) that mainly serves to showcase the comedic sensibilities of the filmmaker; I say it is not nebulous, because the dialogue never entirely strays into the very British, Cowardian tradition of talking for talking’s sake. There is a constant undercurrent of sibling rivalry, male bonding, and that childishness that rears its head whenever we spend too much time with our immediate family.
The film is certainly helped by the performances of the lead actors, who at first seem to be pawns delivering funny lines, but eventually learn to gel as a duo and find their character beats marvellously. In a film that relies almost entirely on dialogue, it is essential that the actors work well together, and have a natural sense of timing and delivery, in order to prevent the story from feeling flat or lacking in conflict and dynamism. There is not a lot a filmmaker can do to avoid these pitfalls if the actors don’t work well together, but that certainly isn’t a criticism you could level against this film.
As I have already mentioned, the soundtrack is superb (as long as you like Dinosaur Jr… if you don’t then I must politely ask you to leave this blog!) and works perfectly in harmony with the aesthetic and tone of the overall piece. The cinematography is simple, but captures perfectly the unique atmosphere of East Hollywood and Echo Park. It is an area that can feel hot and claustrophobic, but seconds later a breeze finds its way from the Pacific, through the more famous and wealthy parts of the city, to the cracked and dusty settlement of hedonists and writers that is… Silverlake. This is easily my favourite part of LA, and while funds are tight it is great to be transported there so effectively by a filmmaker.
Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly downsides to this film. The dialogue does, at times, get on one’s nerves with its incessant wit and speed of delivery. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if you stuck these brothers in a room with the mother and daughter from Gilmore Girls… I shudder to think.
There is also the terrible twist at the end (don’t you hate it when people tell you there is a twist at the end?) It’s not clever and it’s not shocking; it is contrived and insincere and annoying, and it very nearly ruins the ending of the film. In the end Toby finds what he was looking for, and Michael returns home to face another year of loneliness and confusion. I had hoped that he might have learnt something during the film, but alas he has not… and so I was forced to leave the cinema with the realisation that the film had lacked any genuine conflict or drama. But at least it provided some intelligent conversation, beautiful imagery, and a great 90-minutes of rock music.