Even though Slamdance is a week over, we finally caught up with the Audience Award winner for Narrative Feature and can't disagree, so here's a full review.
It could go without saying, but it is clear from the opening frames of “Bindlestiffs” that almost no money was involved in its production, the Ozarka label on a water cooler blurred out in the background and a principal’s office in a high school that looks more like it was filmed in someone’s home. The reason it’s worth mentioning is not to take shots at the way Andrew Edison’s caustic comedy looks, but because thankfully that unvarnished quality extends to its humor, which doesn’t just push the envelope but discards it completely.
Somehow, I would guess Edison and his onscreen (and presumably offscreen) friends Luke (Luke Loftin) and John (John Karna) wouldn't even be aware of an envelope, breaking free of cinematic constraints almost instantaneously after a quick flash of credits and color bars abruptly drops you into the high school they attend. Clearly at odds with the place where the drama teacher announces she's staging "Romeo & Juliet" with a new ending and the English department has banned "Catcher in the Rye," the trio is inspired to live out the fantasy of the latter, only having half-read JD Salinger's kiss-off to adolescence. They're nowhere near as serious-minded as Holden Caulfield when they pool their money together for a cheap motel room on the outskirts of the big city, with some left over for beer and a prostitute. Yet the film itself shares Caulfield's distaste for phoniness, the banter between the three pals feeling loose and casually funny in the cadence only actors as recently removed from high school as Edison, Loftin and Karna could pull off.
Naturally, such idle chatter will lead to bad ideas and for Andrew, Luke and John, it portends a few wild days of trying to get each other laid, dealing with what they think is a corpse of the titular Bindlestiff (in plainspeak, a hobo) and eventually returning home where a dimwitted school security guard misinterprets the phallic graffiti they've left in a bathroom stall as evidence of a plot to open fire on the school. It's a messy situation, but one that never becomes a mess of a movie as Edison keeps the energy high, with help from a manic, playful score by Dylan Hanwright, and the scenes and conversations that drag beyond their expiration point seem to be forgiven quickly by a particularly sharp punchline in the next.
What separates the film from so many other foul-mouthed comedies is an actual love of its characters and “Bindlestiffs”’ willingness to pay off gags as much in the long-term as it is in the short term. Each of the three friends fit into traditional types – Andrew is the overeager, overcaffeinated ring leader, Luke, the one whose bravado masks insecurities, and John, who not unlike Ed Helms' Stu from “The Hangover” is ostensibly the film's moral center until he's flipped out to act the most irresponsibly without noticing. However, the subversion isn't just limited to the friends' behavior but in the way the unexpected is guided by the principles the script by Edison and Loftin sets up for each of them from the outset of the film. Even when jokes don’t work, you appreciate the effort that was put into them and although the crude ruminations involving vomit, crack and deviant sex won’t be for everyone, it’ll give the warm and fuzzies to anyone who has fond memories of wistfully bullshitting “What if…” scenarios with friends in a back alley when you’re young.
By the time one of the guys surmises at the end, "In a lot of ways, this trip didn't turn out how I thought it was going to, but in a lot of ways, it turned out like exactly what I signed up for," it’s obvious Edison and crew knew exactly the film they set out to make and at an age when uncertainty is common, such an assured voice is one worth listening to.