For a certain generation, it’s easy to imagine a certain biographical element in “International Falls” for its stars Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, once ever-present In VH1 on the clip show bonanzas “I Love the ‘70s” and so on. Then primarily known as comedians, the two could be seen paying dues to build a profile, tossing off zingers about KC and the Sunshine Band, that would eventually lead them to play the leads in a film like Amber McGinnis’ dramedy where they could show their dramatic chops and while the wait would be worth it, there would likely be a lot of professional heartache along the way, likely playing small clubs and hotel ballrooms like the one Huebel’s Tim Fletcher finds himself at in Minnesota in the dead of winter. While he’s presumably living the dream, Harris’ Dee is out in the sparse audience, a clerk at the hotel who has aspirations of standing where Tim does, but unsure whether she’d be any good at it.
Although both have proven themselves as strong dramatic actors elsewhere, the experience Harris and Huebel bring to bear on “International Falls” seem to kick up this adaptation of Thomas Ward’s semiautobiographical stage play to another level, able to go deeper and darker than one would expect for a film that could so easily be content to poke fun at heavy Minnesotan accents and other regional peculiarities in a rural burgh just south of the Canadian border. While Tim is checking in for two nights at Dee’s hotel, he seems intent on checking out, tired of having people not take him seriously after telling them his occupation, burned out from his countless nights on the road in half-empty rooms and calling home to leave messages that he knows will go unreturned. Dee isn’t in good spirits either, having recently discovered her husband (Matthew Glave) is cheating on her, though going to see Tim’s act isn’t going to lift them as he performs an uninspired set and she takes pity enough to go upstairs with him to give a similarly unenthusiastic handjob.
After seeing each other at their lowest point, there’s nowhere to go but up and between the punchy rapport Harris and Huebel have organically and McGinnis’ dynamic maneuvering around what’s largely a single location not to mention any number of treacherous subjects, “International Falls” is energetic and consistently engaging throughout as the two realize a kinship, even when it becomes obvious some of the funniest observations will require mining considerable pain for both the characters and the filmmakers. Letting the film tread into territory that truly feels precarious for these surprisingly fragile characters is one of “International Falls”’ great strengths, but uncertainty about whether to reel it back to the confines of a more typical crowd pleaser can prove awkward when a running fantasy Dee has about getting revenge on the woman her husband is having an affair with feels slightly out of place in a film that where any sense of artifice recedes, as does a decision to end with an exclamation point when an ellipsis might better serve a story of people finding their footing.
Still, “International Falls” is on solid ground when there’s as much worthwhile in spending time with Dee and Tim as they come to see in each other, gradually begin to articulate what’s inside of them and losing the act offstage in order to find their voice on it. Gleefully profane at times verging on profound at others, it makes being stuck in a small town feel like like the start of something big.