Around this same time last year, I got a chance to speak to Rosa Salazar, who after a compelling run as a pregnant teen debating whether to give up her child for adoption on “Parenthood,” had gone in a completely different direction with a hidden camera prank comedy called “May the Best Man Win.” In the film, Salazar had been asked to go up to strangers’ tables at a mall food court and eat off their plates and pretend men she had never met had cheated on her, confronting them in front of their significant others. Needless to say, Salazar is fearless, and I bring this up because when writer/director Charles Hood needed someone for his sophomore feature “Night Owls” to play the mercurial Madeline, its center of attention, he couldn’t have done any better.
Hood’s two-hander, set over the course of an evening that dips into the wee hours of the morning, requires such courage of its two leads, as well as considerable give and take since the film’s rhythm is predicated on their chemistry. At first, that’s all there is to go on for an audience as Hood dispenses with information at a slow drip, watching as Madeline and Kevin (Adam Pally) stumble into a house, drunk from a wedding reception and presumably their infatuation with each other with a one-night stand soon to commence. There are signs that not is all as it should be for Kevin, who is willing to overlook his evening’s companion’s propensity to carelessly break stuff around the house in order to sleep with her, but post-coitus, he realizes he had no idea when he discovers he’s in his boss’ house and she’s unconscious in the bathroom, having swallowed a bottle of pills. It’s then up to Kevin to figure out why Madeline brought him to the house once he revives her, setting the stage for revelry, revelations and for Madeline, revenge.
Operating like top-grade Neil LaBute with a more natural facility for out and out comedy, Hood’s wicked sense of humor is evident in the way he and co-writer Seth Goldsmith scatter small bits of the plot for the audience to find as Kevin and Madeline feel each other out after realizing they’ve both been betrayed in one way or another and the piquant exchanges between the two. Salazar handles the manic comic energy of Madeline as deftly as she does the character’s less obvious despair and sense of resolve and Pally matches her beat for beat as Kevin, his casual yet easily excitable demeanor that’s been used to such great effect on “Happy Endings” and “The Mindy Project” a perfect match for Salazar. The film also benefits from small but sly and amusing turns from Tony Hale and Rob Huebel, who show up periodically as quasi-fixers to help Kevin get Madeline through the night.
Perhaps the greatest compliment one could pay “Night Owls” is that you don’t want to leave Salazar and Pally’s company by the time the film’s wends its way towards its conclusion, an inevitable reckoning with Kevin’s boss (Peter Krause) that doesn’t feel fully formed. However, by then you can’t say the same for Madeline and Kevin, who have evolved beautifully before Hood’s camera, manned well throughout by cinematographer Adrian Correia, who makes the most of what essentially is a single-location shoot. A satisfying entry into the one crazy night genre that never leaves the house, “Night Owls” is one worth staying up for.
“Night Owls” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays SXSW once more on March 21st at 1:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar A.