Humpday opens Friday at Raleigh Grand
Lynn Shelton's Humpday, one of the year's best films, begins with a premise that followers of American indies may recognize: A 30-something man, happily married and settling down in the Pacific Northwest, receives a surprise visit from a hirsute blond college friend.
This prodigal friend is his opposite—he's still roaming about from coast to coast, couch to couch, with his money in his shoes and a neo-Beatnik desire for experience and knowledge. The film then chronicles the uneasy weekend the two men spend together as they size up each other's choices.
Yes, this is the plot of the Portland-set Old Joy, released three years ago and, like Humpday, directed by a woman with a unisex name (Kelly Reichardt). Old Joy's fans, including me, found the film to be a grave, subtle and restrained portrait of Gen X at the brink of middle age, but others found it soporific and opaque, despite the hipster casting of Will Oldham as the rambler and the soundtrack by Yo La Tengo.
Lynn Shelton's film is for people who wanted to like Old Joy but didn't, and it's for many other people as well. It's as if Old Joy has been remade by Judd Apatow. (Like Apatow's films, this will be found in a multiplex, and just one: the Raleigh Grand. We'll see if Humpday sticks around long enough to find the audience it deserves; in the meantime, it could blow the minds of some unsuspecting teenagers.)
In Shelton's version of the story, Andrew crash-lands at 2 a.m. to an uneasy, surprised reception from Ben and his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore, perfect as the story's third wheel). Anna and Andrew don't seem too keen on each other, but all three are nice people; they agree to have dinner the following night and spend the evening catching up.
That dinner never happens as Ben gets pulled into Andrew's world instead, visiting him at a party thrown by a group of happily pansexual artists who share a raucous house. Evening is followed by night, alcohol is followed by pot, druggy conversation is followed by men being men, which is to say, Andrew and Ben dare each other into shooting a gay porn film—starring themselves.
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds: The Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger hosts an annual amateur porn competition that gives the film its title. In the case of Humpday, the men's pact is a product of both one-upmanship and their need to finally escape their adolescence. Virtually every scene is a marvel of fine, naturalistic acting. This is a school of filmmaking that creates compelling, believable characters with natural speech patterns that mask a tightly constructed narrative. My favorite scene takes place as the two men, hungover, stumble through a game of basketball. Afterward, there's a perfect opportunity to let each other out of the bargain they'd made the night before. But as the sublimely brilliant scene demonstrates, they are still boys trying to become men, and there's no way they can let each other off the hook.
Humpday was shot on location in Seattle with a nothing budget and an unusual cast. The married, nice-guy Ben is played by the filmmaker Mark Duplass, who is best known as one of key figures in today's lo-fi American realism that bears the unfortunate sobriquet of "mumblecore." The ebullient, desperately bohemian Andrew is played by Joshua Leonard, whose most celebrated role was in a film made a decade ago: The Blair Witch Project. (More recently, Leonard co-directed an intriguing documentary called Beautiful Losers, about a group of punk artists.)
Director Shelton has the thinnest resume of the film's principals, but Humpday—in which she also appears as the bisexual fling-interest of Andrew—is a remarkable achievement. It's also more than pointing a camera at two or three characters talking. There are interesting cutaways during some bits of dialogue, and Shelton lets the actors breathe—but there's no dead air; it's a tight, three-act 94 minutes. The Seattle in this film doesn't consist of aerial shots of the Puget Sound: Instead, we see it in close-up—the tale could be set in the mill houses and bungalows of downtown Carrboro, Durham or Raleigh. The Indy has no Humpday fest, but let us know if you want us to start one.