Fantasy Material

| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:33

    among the american eccentric directors-those filmmakers who came of age in the star wars generation-jared hess is the most offbeat. that may explain why hess, director of 2004's napoleon dynamite, has come up with the first american eccentrics sci-fi movie-gentlemen broncos. fellow eccentric david gordon green, who got a head start with 2000's george washington, regularly speaks of eventually making a sci-fi film, but hess beat him to it. treading that thin line between empathy and pity that also distinguished napoleon dynamite and nacho libre, hess deals with the oddball aspirations frequently felt by teenage loners who escape into fantasy worlds. gentlemen broncos directly expresses that weirdness through 17-year-old benjamin purvis (michael angarano), who longs to turn his isolation and idiosyncrasies into popular art.

    home-schooled benji writes and draws sci-fi novels like most (usually younger) boys do, but he's encouraged to attend a writer's camp, the cletus festival in utah, by his mother judith (jennifer coolidge), herself an amateur artiste/entrepreneur whose home is a buckminster fuller geodesic dome crossed with an a-frame chalet. at camp, benji meets dr. ronald chevalier (jemaine clement of flight of the conchords), a sci-fi idol and industry role model who published his first sci-fi trilogy at age 15. chevalier is flamboyantly affected, a probable fraud, like sexual prodigy tabitha (halley feiffer) and effeminate lonnie (héctor jiménez), two aspiring camp students whose egotism bewilders benji.

    or, they all could just be strange. but when chevalier plagiarizes benji's manuscript yeast lords: the bronco years, it shows a pattern of pathetically common betrayal-despite the rarefied environment. that's how hess expresses his benevolent view of american semi-tragedy.

    rather than embarking on the sci-fi genre itself, hess uses these characters' imaginings of sci-fi and creative fantasy to do something more important and more complicated than a mere sci-fi flick. from character presentation to storyline, gentlemen broncos is totally instinctive-not a story film, but a movie of complex, inchoate feelings. it's about loneliness and vision; the title acknowledges a form of gracious, uncultivated spirit-or "innocence," as martin scorsese assessed bottle rocket, wes anderson's first film.

    this is personal filmmaking, surveying the private emotions that generally embarrass people or make us feel out of step-a daring proposition in an era that frantically insists upon marketable conformity. hess works out scenarios that reveal naked idiosyncrasy. benji's yeast lords premise relays his own fear/obsession with puberty, body parts, odors and secretions. this makes gentlemen broncos as daring as the latest work of hess' other american eccentrics peers spike jonze and wes anderson; and like where the wild things are and the upcoming fantastic mr. fox, gentlemen broncos is so far outside generic convention that scene-by-scene it risks being misunderstood. (expect hess to get stomped by critics who only want formula.)

    when phasing into passages from the yeast lords saga, hess recreates interplanetary adventure tableaux that superficially resemble low-budget sci-fi flicks. yet these are photographed as if in harsh sun light rather than with special effects gloss. it's oddly realistic, refusing cgi "magic" to admit the fact of desperate imagining.

    from napoleon dynamite to the exquisitely designed nacho libre to this, hess' aesthetic is based on capturing the difference between illusion and longing. contrasting fantasy with the commonplace seems simple (the yeast lords alternative storyline featuring sam rockwell as a hairy, virile hero fighting a weapon-wielding alien menagerie clearly references krull), but hess goes further by audaciously splitting up the three yeast lords narratives. if they looked the same, j.j. abrams would rule. but benji's fantasies have a frowzy, homemade tone different from chevalier's fruity, purloined daydreams, while lonnie and tabitha's collaborations are rough-cut like super 8 or vhs home movies.

    making movies from inside the heads of these characters means hess somewhat neglects the film's social vision. what appears like an uncertain sci-fi parody and humanist satire (the probable result of seeking indie commerciality), is actually just hess' awkward working-through of sci-fi fascination and real-world astonishment-the complexity that so far eludes david gordon green. instead of the strained poetry in green's snow angels (which also starred angarano and rockwell), gentlemen broncos captures truly eccentric americana-it's the hsn, qvc universe where consumerism and individualism blur.

    gentlemen broncos progresses past the view of small-town freaks and perverts. hess uses sci-fi to refocus our view of modern life-that's why his title also evokes the western. hess' script (co-written with his wife jerusha) centers on the ways benji survives being cheated-almost as if commenting on the dangers of hollywood. but the wayward narrative highlights a richer fact: america's fragmented yet overlapping fantasies, dreams and schemes.

    this mix of hokum and sincerity is unusual, yet genuine. hess is not into irony, just as he's way beyond star wars, looking past its otherworldly distraction to reconnect with today's confounding reality. in gentlemen broncos, sci-fi's poignant charms even coexist with churchgoing-note the quilt hanging in benji's bedroom of jesus riding barney. it's all part of our authentic and poignant cultural mess.

    -- gentlemen broncos directed by jared hess runtime: 90 min.