Baghead opens Friday in select theaters
It took five minutes for Baghead to win me over. The film's extended prologue opens at the Los Angeles Underground Film Festival with the screening of a micro-budget, laughable indie pic entitled We Are Naked.
As Chad (Steve Zissis) and Matt (Ross Partridge), themselves friends and starving filmmakers, react with bemusement at what they have just watched, the audience poses the predictable litany of questions for the film's director, Jett Garner (an indie director playing himself): "What was your budget?" "Was there any improvisation?" In response, Jett declares, "Hollywood has you convinced that it takes $100 million to make a quality piece of art, and that's a piece of crap statement, and I think you just saw that ... right?"
The erroneous, pretentious attitude of many neo-realistic filmmaking movements—e.g., Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 brethren—is that minimalism is incompatible with and even hostile toward the traditional studio system. Directors Jay and Mark Duplass are among a cadre of young American filmmakers who comprise "mumblecore," a movement that arose in the early 2000s and is characterized by lo-fi productions, improvised scripts, novice acting and a focus on relationships between 20-somethings. In Baghead's opening scene, the Duplass Bros. seem to poke fun at the self-importance of their indie universe. However, they go further: This self-deprecation becomes part of the film's goof.
Inspired by the festival, Matt, Chad and friends Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller) decide to venture to an isolated cabin in the woods (mistake No. 1) to hash out the screenplay for a film in which they will also star. Michelle's apparent dream one night about being stalked by someone wearing a paper bag over his head serves as their inspiration: a horror flick about a group of friends being terrorized by a "baghead."
Preconditioned by our usual movie-going experiences and the film's prologue, we expect Baghead to develop into a satire of the filmmaking process, a horror movie spoof and/ or a comedic movie-within-a-movie: Think Blair Witch Project meets Scream. Instead, the tension and story line principally revolve around the personal politics binding the four friends. The pleasantly plump Chad is enamored with Michelle, who is instead attracted to Matt. Meanwhile, Matt has a longstanding relationship with Catherine, who harbors hopes she and Matt can rekindle their romance.
The Duplass Bros. flesh out these simmering conflicts with both wit and a verite façade that camouflages scenes that couldn't have been more structured if they had been storyboarded. Roving camera angles and sublime reaction shots detail the sometimes awkward byplay between the characters as their true feelings and foibles rise to the surface.
The Duplasses' technique is less sharp once the narrative's focus shifts to more typical horror conventions. However, fashioning an "According to Hoyle" horror movie is not the directors' intent. Moreover, it would be difficult to intentionally equal the unintentional parody afflicting a title like The Strangers, the latest misfire featuring villains wearing sacks over their heads.
In the end, Baghead is well-made and genuine, yet also simplistic and unremarkable. That is just what its makers intended it to be.