Directed by Kris Avedisian
Opens March 3 at the Angelika
One of the unexpected pleasures of the recent mainstream comedy Why Him?—yes, the James Franco/Bryan Cranston movie from December—lie in how much the filmmakers were willing to stretch its comedy-of-discomfort scenarios to the breaking point, piling on embarrassment after embarrassment with a “can you top this” zeal that, depending on your tolerance for that kind of humor, could be seen as perversely admirable. In its own quieter way, writer/director Kris Avedisian’s debut feature, Donald Cried, does something similar in detailing the odd-couple dynamic between Donald (Avedisian)—a particularly noteworthy variation on the Judd Apatow-ian man-child—and his supposed childhood best friend, Peter (Jesse Wakeman), as they reconnect upon the latter’s return to his Rhode Island hometown in the wake of his grandmother’s death.
“Supposed” because, watching Donald—unkempt appearance, Asperger’s-like behavior and all—interact with an often repulsed Peter as he essentially hijacks him into riding around town, it’s difficult to immediately see how they were ever friends in the first place. There are hints throughout that they both shared rebellious, heavy-metal leanings as teenagers, and that much of Donald’s behavior in the film is the result of him stubbornly holding onto past glories while Peter has sold out to the world of finance. But in one key scene, Touty (Jeremy Furtado), a former friend of theirs, recounts an anecdote in which Peter played a cruel prank on Donald. It’s a tense moment that not only suggests the depths of Donald’s self-delusional optimism, but raises perhaps irresolvable questions of what exactly their friendship was built on. Certainly, Peter, during the roughly 24 hours the film depicts, seems to show little guilt for essentially using Donald to try to get him out of the financial bind he’s currently in thanks to a lost wallet.
And yet, refreshingly, the psychologies of these two characters—and thus, our feelings towards them—are never made easy to pin down. Peter’s behavior toward Donald is attributed as much to his own ill feelings toward the dead-end, working-class town itself as any ill will he might bear toward his former friend—and even then, there are moments in which he fondly remembers the good times they once had (especially once he’s under the influence of marijuana). As for Donald, he does show traces of self-awareness, mostly through stray apologetic comments and the occasional moment in which we see him manipulating Peter into forcing him to tag along on the next wild adventure.
Avedisian chronicles these push-pull interactions with a general emphasis on long takes and medium shots, ruthlessly prolonging even the most discomfiting scenes: a diner run-in with an old high-school friend in which Donald admits to carrying out a disgusting prank while Peter desperately denies it; a long silence shared between them in a car after Peter angrily rejects Donald’s $40 donation. Donald Cried ought to be insufferable—Lord knows, American cinema doesn’t really need any more bromances between people in varying states of arrested development, and Avedisian is, on some level, testing our reflexes toward such characters through his style. That’s not to say, however, that condescension is on Avedisian’s agenda. By casting everything in a sharply naturalistic light in order to ground them firmly in a recognizable real world, he shows a sincere interest in trying to understand these people, and maybe even implicating us in the process. Like any person worth knowing, warts and all, the more we get to know Donald and Peter, the more affecting the film becomes.