Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Gray Area (2010)

Director: Chapin Hemmingway                        Writers: Chapin Hemmingway & Tyson Balcomb
Film Score: Jeff Broadbent                              Cinematography: Sean Rawls
Starring: Gavin Bristol, Morgan Lee, Ian McMilan and Jesse Henderson

This is yet another independent film made in Portland. Writer-director Chapin Hemmingway’s most recent feature is a fascinating look at a three friends returning home after the death of one of their group. But while the premise might sound familiar, the film is anything but as it delivers as powerful an ending to a film as I have ever seen. I came to The Gray Area through Jesse Henderson, who had appeared in Justin Koleszar’s One Foot in the Gutter. The other draw for me was the appearance of Benjamin Farmer who was so impressive in The Falls films by Jon Garcia. Like so many of the great films coming out of Portland, this has a decidedly autobiographical feel, and an emphasis on character and drama that seems unique to the filmmakers in that area. The one area where so many small films fail tends to be in the screenplay, but this one is quite good. Hemmingway and his producer, Tyson Balcomb, have written a believable script that gives the actors a natural framework on which to work. One scene in particular, where the three leads are saying a few words before scattering their friend’s ashes, is a clinic on how to differentiate characters in the writing, but this is just one part of an impressive overall production.

The film opens with some nice establishing shots around Portland, night gradually falling as the credits roll, and ending on a shot of the still body of Jesse Henderson in a car. From there the narrative begins with Gavin Brisol as small-time actor in L.A., picking up Michelle Damis by appealing to her vanity. The next morning he gets up from her bed--where she’s still asleep--and tries to write a note but has to look in her purse to get her name. He goes in to work as a barista at a coffee house, and soon finds out from a friend that Henderson has been found dead in his car. Bristol flies into Portland the next day and is met by Morgan Lee at the airport, who takes him to his parent’s house to wait for the funeral. That night Bristol, who has had a drinking problem, takes some pills and washes them down with whisky. While he’s in the pool ex-girlfriend Meredith Adelaide shows up, but leaves soon after when she realizes she can’t have an honest conversation with him about Henderson. On the way to pick up their other friend from the airport, Lee tells Bristol that Henderson’s death might not have been an overdose but a hot shot, a lethal dose of drugs that dealers sell to customers who get behind and don’t pay. Finally they pick up Ian McMilan, a soldier on leave for the funeral, and the group is complete.

Bristol is feeling the need to rekindle his relationship with Adelaide, though more out of physical familiarity than emotional desire. But the real drama turns on how the three friends decide to deal with Henderson’s death by investigating whether it might have been murder. The film primarily revolves around Gavin Bristol, an actor who had already made a couple of appearances in the Twilight films. He does a good job here, but the drug abuse aspect of his character seems a little clichéd and at times his affectations tend to stand in for acting. It’s really Morgan Lee and Ian McMilan who do the bulk of the heavy lifting during the film. The only other real questionable moment in the screenplay is when the friends are presented with Henderson’s ashes by his mother, Trish Egan, and McMilan doesn’t know what to do. With his military background, however, he should have been the one in the group to voluntarily take the lead. Other than that, however, McMilan does some solid work as the self-assured war veteran, especially in the ending. For me, however, Morgan Lee is the real standout as the former drug addict who feels survivor guilt for getting out of the life while Henderson succumbed.

Of the other notable performances in the film, one is Benjamin Farmer as a drug dealer. The simple juxtaposition of his scene with that of fellow drug dealer Joaquin Fernandez during their interrogation shows Farmer to be the far superior actor. The other is by Manna Phommathep as a drug distributor, and his scene in the climax is also very well done. While Meredith Adelaide is breathtaking in her brief scene by the pool, she unfortunately has very little else to do in the story. The ending of the film is as disturbing as it is surprising, and is no doubt one of the reasons the film has had such positive reviews. In addition to the drama, however, there are also some nice bits of humor in the screenplay, beginning with Bristol looking for Damis’s ID in her purse. And when Bristol insists on taking his convertible to the airport, McMilan looks in the back and says, “Where am I supposed to sit?” But Hemmingway also has nice way with visual humor. The tableaux after the funeral where the friends are lined up on the couch and given the urn by Egan is terrific. Like so many of the films coming out of Portland, the cinematography is beautiful, especially the scene at the beach where the friends go to scatter Henderson’s ashes, and the montage where the friends go to the drug house is also quite good. The Gray Area is a solid piece of filmmaking from Chapin Hemmingway, and hopefully we’ll see more from him in the future.

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