Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dallas IFF 2013 Review: DIVING NORMAL - Zed's Take

Directed by: Kristjan Thor
Written by: Ashlin Halfnight
Starring: Susie Abromeit, Scotty Crowe, Philipp Karner, Tonye Patano, Sandra Bernhard, Beau Garrett
Synopsis: Fulton, an ambitious Brooklynite graphic novelist, and Gordon, his socially awkward neighbor, are best friends who both vie for the attention of Dana, a beautiful but damaged girl.

At the start of the Dallas International Film Festival, I made a conscious effort not to read any press, reviews, or blogs about the films on my review slate. I didn’t want to be swayed by other criticisms, good or bad. It was difficult to suppress my curiosity and reading reviews pre-screening was my modis operandi. Lately, I found that the movies I enjoyed the most were those whose reviews I chose to ignore. Despite the many great reviewers in print and online, there criticism often overhyped a movie for me. No fault to them, as I realize this is art, and therefore, subjective. But it’s like when the judge tells the jury to ignore comments previously stated in the courtroom.  Trying to ignore it makes it even more present in your mind.

Kristjan Thor’s DIVING NORMAL was hyped minutes before the movie began. Upon introducing the movie, artistic director of the Dallas Film Society, James Faust, raved that DIVING NORMAL was one of the most well received movies among his staff. That statement thus raised the bar considerably high. I am not a member of the Dallas Film Society, nor do I know what movies often appeal to the artistic director and his employees. For all I know, they may have considered “Freddy Got Fingered” a cinematic masterpiece (though I highly doubt that). Nevertheless, my opinion had been swayed slightly.

DIVING NORMAL, based on the critically acclaimed play, made me think of the New Order hit song, Bizarre Love Triangle (though I much prefer the Frente version of the song). The movie centers on Fulton (Philipp Karner), Gordon (Scotty Crowe), and Dana (Susie Abromeit). Fulton is a single, handsome, graphic novelist living in a cozy walk up in Brooklyn. Just by looking at him, you could have guessed where he lived. He is the urban dictionary definition of hipster, with a dash of metrosexual. At one point, I had to check my cast notes because I thought the actor playing him is a dead ringer for fun. lead singer, Nate Ruess. Gordon, his socially awkward neighbor, is a kind fellow who provides Fulton with notes for his graphic novels. He is neat and speaks in a literal, monologue style. It’s pretty obvious that Gordon has Asperger syndrome, but the screenwriter doesn’t hone in on it, which I applaud. Too many movies waste time with exposition on characters with different needs. They do not wish to be treated differently, just fairly. Fulton and Gordon have a good relationship. But I wonder how close they would be if Gordon didn’t offer such great notes.

Dana is fresh out of rehab. She was once a model, more Gia Carangi than Cindy Crawford. Now she earns an honest living at an assisted living facility. She runs into Fulton and Gordon outside a cafe. Judging by the lack of diversity, they must be in either Williamsburg or Greenpoint. Turns out Dana and Fulton went to high school together. She was the wild child, and I assume Fulton was the creative nerd, unable to cash in on his hipster aesthetic. After a brief tête-à-tête, Fulton wants to reconnect more. Gordon, acting as Cyrano de Bergerac, helps Fulton convince Dana to accompany him to his book release party. Given that she recently got clean, Dana’s sponsor pleads with her to avoid serious relationships. But Fulton presses hard, and pretty soon he and Dana are a couple, with Gordon serving as comical, third wheel. They wonder around Brooklyn with what sounded like Sirius Coffeehouse playing in the background. I’m partial to singer/songwriters, and thus found the soundtrack to be apropos.

We can already tell from the movie poster that a love triangle is in our midst. And the scenes between Dana and Gordon are well acted and well written. She watches him practice his dives at the local YMCA, often like a proud sister, as opposed to a loving girlfriend. The key is making their connection believable. And here is where the movie succeeds.As with any movie involving a relationship, there is that moment when the relationship is tested, and you aren’t sure if they will make it. There is a contentious scene involving all three that really hit the audience hard. As an audience, we were all invested in this triangle, which I’m sure delighted the director Kristjan Thor, who was also in attendance.

Susie Abromeit’s performance as Dana made the movie for me. Portraying a character with dependency issues can be a slippery slope for actors. Oftentimes, actor go over the top, but Abromeit hit just the right note for Dana. The scenes between her and mother gave us insight as to why she became such a hellraiser, and the guilt that comes with the comedown. And Scotty Crowe’s portrayal of Gordon could have easily stumbled into “Rain Man” territory, but thankfully didn’t. 

DIVING NORMAL tells a conventional story, but uses an unconventional dynamic to differentiate itself. It wasn’t my favorite movie of the festival, but it was an endearing film that questioned societal norms. The way I grade films is fairly simple. If I leave the theater deep in thought, pondering what I’ve just seen, then it was a good film, possibly even great. If I leave wondering where I parked my car, then it was probably a bad film. DIVING NORMAL was a good film. Here’s hoping the Dallas Film Society doesn’t hold that against me when I apply for membership.

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