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Before it's time for us to serve up some turkey Stateside, here are my thoughts on two recent indie genre films I’ve had the pleasure of checking out: Megan Freels Johnston’s horror comedy The Ice Cream Truck and Jamie Dagg’s crime thriller Sweet Virginia, featuring Jon Bernthal.

The Ice Cream Truck: Akin to an early Tim Burton-esque take on the horrors of suburbia and adulthood, Johnston’s The Ice Cream Truck is a slightly absurd yet wholly relatable exploration of the anxieties of modern women, particularly those who don’t necessarily fit in with the typical “Bake Sale Moms” out there who always seem to have “it” together, living out their existences happily defined by their roles within their respective households.

In The Ice Cream Truck, we are introduced to Mary (Deanna Russo) who is anything but confident in the woman she has become over the years. She married young, had a few kids, and now feels like she missed out on a whole “fun” phase of her life. As she settles into her family’s new home and awaits the arrival of her hubby and progeny from Seattle who will be arriving in a few days, Mary’s insecurities hit an all-time high, especially since she feels out of place in her new suburban location and shares very little in common with the neighborhood’s Stepford-like residents.

As Mary finds herself getting wrapped up in her own paranoia and awkwardness the more time she spends away from her family, she finds a kindred spirit in Max (John Redlinger), an 18-year-old who seems to dig on older ladies and has his sights set on his new neighbor, regardless of just how wrong a potential hook-up between them would be. And these struggles make for the perfect backdrop for Johnston’s weirdly surreal slasher tale, once we realize that Mary’s got far more to fear than just her own inability to fit in—there’s a murderous ice cream truck driver (Emil Johnsen) running amok, and he’s always looking for new victims, including the film’s protagonist, who is too busy being caught up in her own personal turmoil to realize the danger around her.

The Ice Cream Truck has some rough edges to it, but I’m always a fan of micro-budgeted indie films that strive to tell good stories, give us engaging characters we want to invest in, and try to do something different—all things that Johnston confidently delivers in her latest directorial effort. Russo offers up a strong performance as a woman who finds herself at the proverbial crossroads in her life, and the more time we spend with her, the more I really enjoyed her work in the film. Ice Cream Truck also features a sweet cameo of sorts from Jeff Daniel Phillips, too, who is a personal favorite of mine, and he’s great in the limited screen time he has here.

Overall, Johnston has crafted an engaging and easily relatable dark comedy in The Ice Cream Truck that made for a very enjoyable watch for this writer. Maybe it’s because of the age that I’m at these days (read: I’M OLD), or the fact that I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, but there was a lot about the character of Mary that hit me on numerous levels, and I look forward to whatever Johnston comes up with next.

Movie Score: 3/5

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Sweet Virginia: Equal parts small-town drama and crime thriller, Dagg’s Sweet Virginia is one of the more unassuming slow-burn suspense films I’ve seen in 2017, but I mean that in a wholly complimentary way. Featuring a few moments of savage violence and white-knuckle tension, it might be easy to draw some parallels between this and another recent project of Bernthal’s, The Punisher series, but I think this one has more in common with early Coen Brothers' films than it does the newly released Netflix series. Sweet Virginia has a story that quietly sneaks up on you and then hits you right in the gut when you’re least expecting it, and Dagg’s haunting character study is a viewing experience I won’t likely soon forget.

The title Sweet Virginia is a reference to the film’s main locale, a motel owned by Sam (Bernthal), who has turned in his spurs and saddle from his days as a competitive rodeo rider for a quieter life overseeing the titular property on behalf of his brother. Sam hasn’t quite come to terms with life outside of bull riding, but we see him trying to put in a great effort, whether it's with his teenaged employee Maggie (Odessa Young), who he regularly cheers on at her basketball games and offers up fatherly advice, or the newly widowed Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is looking for some semblance of happiness and comfort during her time of grief. Sam’s quiet existence gets rocked to its very foundation when he crosses paths with Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a customer at the Sweet Virginia, who happens to be staying in town to collect on a contract after killing his target (and unfortunately, Bernadette’s husband as well) and just needs his “employer” (the always fantastic Imogen Poots as Lila) to pay up now that he’s done his job.

At first, Sam and his new pal seem to hit it off, but as Elwood’s erratic behavior begins to spiral out of control, and his patience wears thin as he awaits his payment, well, as the saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and it’s up to Sam to deal with Elwood before everyone he knows and loves is put squarely in harm’s way.

There’s a deliberateness to Sweet Virginia that I really admired, where you can tell that Dagg was thoroughly invested as a visual storyteller, as he really allows us to spend time with these characters and gives the film time to breathe and tell this pot-boiler story the right way. I also must tip my hat to screenwriters Paul and Benjamin China as well, because they put a lot into this script, where every single line of dialogue feels like it means something, akin to puzzle pieces locking firmly into place. There is an air of unease that Dagg sets early in Sweet Virginia, where we know there’s a lot of pain to befall these characters in the future, and the journey he takes us on to get to the film’s ultimate destination is often unsettling, but so damn compelling all the same.

Anchored by an assortment of undeniably great performances from the entire cast (this is easily Bernthal’s strongest work to date, and I really hope this opens more doors for him to take on more complex characters in the future), Sweet Virginia might feature a lot of recognizable elements when it comes to films of a similar ilk, but between Dagg’s assured direction and the China Brothers’ unforgettably gripping tale of deceit, destructiveness, heartbreak, and hope, Sweet Virginia rises above familiarity to create an evocative exploration of desperation that never loses sight of the humanity at the core of its story.

Movie Score: 4/5

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