TIFF 2023 Review: An Artist Spinning Their Wheels Leads to Success in Chris Wilcha’s “Flipside”

There isn’t a wasted second in “Flipside,” though its director Chris Wilcha might not feel the same way as he tells the story of his life and career thus far. After making “The Target Shoots First,” a chronicle of his time spent in the music industry’s underbelly hawking CD subscription plans for Columbia House in 2000 as an early means to an end, the filmmaker thought he’d be done with side gigs for good after the doc was well-received and he’d be able to devote his time to movies full-time. But as he explains in an opening that moves so fast you know that life had other plans, marriage and children led him to seek out more steady employment and he gave into the same line of work he thought he’d sworn off when he made his first film, ultimately using his filmmaking talents as a director of commercials.

“Flipside” ends up being Wilcha’s first feature film credit since “The Target Shoots First,” but it is hardly his first attempt at a follow-up, with the director resurfacing a number of projects that were never finished for one reason or another from a profile of the late jazz photographer Herman Leonard to following a book project of Starlee Kine that was doomed by writers block. Anyone in the arts is bound to relate as these longterm labors of love fall apart for various reasons while both personal commitments and freelance gigs start eating away at the time he had hoped to give them, and after an ad he works on inspires thoughts of his days working at the Flipside Record Store in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey as a teen, he’s reminded that he had promised the owner Dan years before that he’d make a film there with the hope of improving business at the vinyl emporium.

That would certainly be the easiest way to describe “Flipside,” but Wilcha isn’t after easy here, wrestling with feelings that he hasn’t lived up to promises he’s made to himself as a creative person and in a magnificent feat of editing from co-editors Claire Ave’Lallemant and Joe Beshenkovsky, the film takes on the irresistible rhythm of flipping through crates of records as he looks back on his past projects, speeding through some of it, but more often slowing down and taking a longer look at certain things. With its first-person narration and willingness to run with a good tangent, it definitely seems like his two-season stint as the director who helped shepherd “This American Life” to television was heavily influential on his style, but Wilcha has to dig deep into his own voice, sifting through his unfinished or underseen works to show the value they ended up having for him personally and while they ended up incomplete on their own, they give shape to an experience you rarely see depicted so vividly of how an artist’s career is rarely in their control.

Fittingly, Wilcha can only sporadically engage with his intended main subject of “Flipside,” but indeed besides being a sturdy backbone for the story he ends up telling, it is a genuinely engaging story all on its own as the store unexpectedly finds itself fighting for customers with a newer, hipper shop across town and Wilcha spends afternoons chatting up both his former co-worker Tracy, who has the carpet pattern of the store floor tattooed on her forearm, and a regular customer Floyd Vivino, whose own professional rise and fall as a basic cable TV host is as good an example as any of how strange careers can go when his variety show was picked up for national syndication for a year, playing right after “Saturday Night Live” and gave him notoriety among a select few forever.

Although the point is that no one can follow a straight line to success or personal satisfaction, Wilcha does find a direct correlation when his latest feature bears a strong resemblance to his previous one, pulling inspiration from work he’d rather not be doing and while avoiding some glib, abstract conclusions about how persistence can pay off, there is not just talk, but evidence of how failures can end up becoming triumphs, either in the education they provide or simply when seen from a different angle.

“Flipside” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 13th at 9:30 pm at the Scotiabank 4.

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