What Kind of Sequel Do You Make for a Movie Nobody Saw?

uncle-kent-2

Uncle Kent 2
Directed by Todd Rohal
Opens November 11 at the Alamo Drafthouse

Usually the most salient praise that can be afforded a sequel or remake is that its existence owes more to inspiration than to accounting, but in the case of Uncle Kent 2, that’s something of a backhanded compliment. Reprising a modestly successful 2011 micro-indie, there are no focus groups or fan-sites willing this movie into existence. In fact, the whole endeavor is unavoidably perverse: the backstory that’s typically the marketers’ chief asset is, in this case, at least as likely to be a hurdle.

The original Uncle Kent is one of Joe Swanberg’s pieces of collaborative portraiture, a work of fiction deeply grounded in the daily life of its writer-producer-star Kent Osborne, 40-ish writer and director of children’s cartoons. UK2 begins as a literal continuation of the earlier film, with a 12-minute opening sequence directed by Swanberg, in which Osborne pitches his idea for a sequel. Swanberg first shoots him down, then encourages him to find another director for the project and, accordingly, hands the movie over to headliner Todd Rohal, whose films include The Catechism Cataclysm and The Guatemalan Handshake.

The head-scratching reflexivity of that setup offers a good indication of Rohal’s broader designs here. While Swanberg’s mode is observational, Rohal aims for a mixture of low-brow and high-concept—in other words, stoner comedy, but the intellectual kind. The plot finds Osborne increasingly preoccupied with “simulation theory”—essentially, the attempt to put a scholarly gloss on “what if we really are living in the Matrix?”—as a series of strange encounters, apparent hallucinations, and waking dreams lead him to question his own grip on reality.

Rohal’s less successful gambits suggest a see-what-sticks approach that sometimes steps on jokes by straining for WTF reactions. At its best, though, the movie frames Osborne’s neuroses and hangups with a comic bluntness it shares with the star’s longtime employer, the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, a show so singularly devoted to the imaginative freedom of childhood that it routinely outweirds its overtly druggy Adult Swim cousins. (The kinship is reinforced by the animated flourishes from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward.)

At 70-odd minutes, Uncle Kent 2 is gratifyingly modest, but among sequels it manages an uncommon achievement: to stand on its own two feet, without either leaning on its predecessor’s store of goodwill or appearing redundant alongside it.

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