BUMBLEFUCK USA is a backwater brew of highly charged sexuality and effortless eroticism. It's a landmark lesbian romance says Timothy E. RAW, who also talks to the film's leading ladies, while Slarek takes a look at Peccadillo's DVD.
Bumblefuck USA is the unassuming but remarkable return of the great US indie. Watching Aaron Douglas Johnston's polished and perceptive debut, I thrilled to falling in love with my favourite genre all over again. Those modestly budgeted, quietly affecting films of my teens that once defined the spirit of Sundance rather than its brand.
Johnston's film is typical of the decade that mapped out region-specific small town life across America. Finding drama down side streets that stretched out like universes, these poetic impressions of lived-in reality always seemed to have existed long before and after the films that explored them.
The extraordinary characters sparsely populating these ordinary tales of the Anywhereville American heartland are as humble and modest as the surroundings from which they hail. Take the protagonists of Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, Hilary Birmingham's Tully and Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me (the last great example of its kind), all born-and-raised regular Joes, whose struggles to find purchase in their own lives are presented as simple, sun-dappled snapshots of people simply trying to live the best way they know how and maybe one day see some place other than the town they grew up in.
Bumblefuck USA is directly descended from all of the above, both paean and elegy to a much-missed filmmaking of unhurried substance, whose precious sensitivity has since been imitated to death by droves of copycat indies deservedly trapped in self-congratulatory festival circuit purgatory. Johnston seems to instinctively understand this, harkening back to a time of people and places, before the first world problems of mumblecore re-wrote the definition of quiet character study as a barely connected series of whiny sketches. Both types are often marked by persuasive inertia, but Bumblefuck USA gives its small town inhabitants express permission to dream beyond the fish bowl boarders of their daily lives, to thoughts of metamorphosis and self-improvement rather than improved popularity.
When outsider Alexa (Cat Smits) comes all the way from Amsterdam with nothing more than a backpack and video camera, intending to make a film about what it must be like to be gay in a small US town, the talking heads turn out in number to vent their frustrations about coming out and having to deal with the pressures of antiquated values and backwoods backwardness. As it turns out, Bumblefuck, Iowa is a hotbed of furtive homosexuality, an entire populace unjustly persecuted and quietly living in fear.
Ostensibly, Alexa is there to pay tribute to her best friend Matt, an Iowa native she met as an exchange student who commits suicide after returning home and coming out of the closet. Seeking closure and understanding, she interviews other gay members of the community rocked by Matt's death. Talking to friends and neighbours who knew him well, she tries to get a handle on what pushed him over the edge. Emotions run high in Alexa's investigation, the documentary footage entirely comprised of real life locals' coming out stories. Blurring the boundary between documentary and fiction, Alexa is very much an on-screen avatar for director Johnston, whose own cousin Matt tragically took his own life at age twenty-four after coming out.
The title may be pejorative, evoking the kind of shithole towns you're thankful to drive right through and not stop, but as Alexa rides into town in the back of a pick-up, picturesque magic hour lensing is romanticized further still when viewed through the eyes of a foreigner.
I'll gladly take Bumblefuck over New Romney any day.
Visually, this character introduction also sets a sense of mood in the too-humid-to-be-idllyic summer haze that hangs over the town and intensifies the air of sexual confusion from the opening frame.
For it is Alexa, not Matt who is the figural victim here, a difficult one to peg for much of the running time. Speaking exclusively in elliptical, non-commitments she's as brutally indirect as the mode of storytelling. Johnston and Alexa share a language of deliberate omission, drawing us in even as it becomes clear empirical facts about characters and their motivations will remain interdimate. In conversation, Alexa is loathe to talk about herself, the same way Johnston is adverse to backstory or anything beyond the basic facts of her friendship with Matt. Getting locals to rummage around in his past and speculate on camera is a clue to Alexa's not quite conscious desire to turn her sudden loss into something more acceptable, an attempt to paste together a pre-history which explains the abandonment and aimlessness she now feels in Matt's absence.
When one of the interviewees is bold enough to suggest that Matt's sexuality might have nothing to do with the fact that he was simply depressed, it's a moment that makes better sense of Johnston's directorial ambivalence. One supposes a haunting lack of certainty about his cousin's death has also informed his approach to a semi-fictitious account of the same ordeal.
If the only definite statement is the one Matt made with a bullet, Cat Smits appropriately plays Alexa's bereavement as a restless search for something about herself she can't yet define; that by shinning a light on Matt's torment she might also illuminate something about her own anxieties.
As an exploration of contemporary sexual and social alienation in middle-of-nowhere USA, the film-within-a-film's neorealistic truth lends the narrative uncommon intimacy, though it's a truth Alexa fictitiously deploys to fill a void within herself. Constituting the candid inner life of a community for an individual's unknowable private pains is an assuaging fantasy for Alexa, whose not entirely altruistic reason for making the film is as much an attempt of self-administered therapy as it is about paying loving tribute to a dearly departed friend.
Self-sabotaging the healing process, Alexa makes little effort to project a socially useful version of herself, and how a person so severely lacking in social graces gets so many people to open up on camera the way they do is an incredulity the film never quite justifies. It's perfectly conceivable that she's capable of turning on the charm, but we're never shown any evidence of this.
Rooming for the duration of her stay with sadsack Lucas (John Watkins) the question of how the two strangers came to live together is yet more jettisoned backstory, drawing attention to Alexa's lack of emotional availability through the ways in which she conducts herself around her host, rudely abusing his hospitality. Instantly intrigued and attracted to this girl, Lucas ignores her contemptuous disinterest and persists with pleasantries. Ignoring all of his "getting to know you" icebreakers and revealing nothing of herself, Alexa has no problem firing probing personal questions at Lucas, as if he were just another subject in her documentary. For her part, their interactions are drained of both human content and consideration, so when Alexa is carried home by Jennifer (Heidi M. Sallows) after partying all night at the local gay bar, it's fascinating to watch her wake up disorientated by the unfamiliar setting and then put on the back foot by someone possessed of the self-confidence she's totally lacking.
Jennifer is no doormat like Lucas, immediately calling out Alexa's bullshit, because she has the nose to smell her own kind. Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say they smell each other. Where speech is an evasive action against communication, evading meaning rather than expressing it, the experience of grief and loss is something they both sniff out, vaguely aware of some insufficiency in the other's life. Latching on to a common frequency, they might not understand it or know what do with it, but there's an undeniable draw.
What really impresses here are the breakout performances of two leads with no prior film experience, communicating so much while saying very little. Silence is essential to the film's idiosyncratic rhythm, expressing the intensity of the girls' connection but also underscoring the distance between them in terms of personality. Jennifer is straightforward and emotionally direct, while Alexa is abstruse and fecklessly uncaring.
As a director, Johnston is admirably meticulous in the way he lends the unspoken moments such volume, letting two-shots linger those few extra frames and building unbearable sexual tension from each point of view. Giving his amateur actresses the star treatment in rapturous close-up, he knows enough to trust the pair's reticent smolder and high-contrast attractiveness, generating chemistry with such crackle, it makes that the need for sex scenes entirely redundant. Right away they can't take their eyes off each other and neither will you.
Between them, the trio concocts a backwater brew of highly charged sexuality and effortless eroticism, inebriating from the first shot to the last in this fumbling, bumbling lusty swoon of a movie. You'd probably have to go as far back as the classics of the New Queer Cinema to find an instant attraction quite as mercurial and intoxicating. Certainly, it's the most sexually charged fem coupling since Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, and just as that film proved itself a landmark lesbian romance of the nineties, Bumblefuck USA stakes its claim as a more than worthy contemporary equivalent.
While it's not our usual practice to comment on the packaging, Bumblefuck USA is one of those titles that must have simultaneously prompted squeals of delight and predictive groans at the Peccadillo offices when they snagged the film for a DVD release. It is, after all, the sort of title that prompts the likes of you and me (oh all right, maybe just me, but I'm hoping we're singing from the same choir here) to immediately want to know more about it. But anyone releasing a film with this moniker has the problem of actually getting it on the shelves, and in that respect the title is a problem. "Bumble" is fine. "USA" is fine. "Fuck" is not. You and I might not be remotely offended, but the family-friendly likes of Asda and Tesco just aren't going to stock it (given the subject matter, they probably wouldn't anyway). Thus Peccadillo have taken the cautionary measure of substituting asterisks for a couple of key letters, which technically disguises the problem part of the title but is frankly fooling no-one (I've gone into more detail about why in my review of Greg Araki's Totally F***ked Up, also a Peccadillo release), a small piece of camouflage for the publicly displayed titles on the cover and spine. Open the box up and it's Bumblefuck USA on the disc itself and even on the small print of the summary on the cover. I'm sure it annoys the good people at Peccadillo that they have to do this, so it must be galling that even with this typographical concession, a search on a somewhat prudish Amazon will still not take you to this DVD. Which is odd, because they do sell it. You can find it here.
sound and vision
Bumblefuck USA was clearly shot on a what even indie filmmakers would call a low budget, but I've so far been unable to confirm on what medium. The quality of the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer here suggests either matted Super-16mm film or letterboxed HD (I'm guessing the latter). Either way, the image quality is pleasing if only occasionally outstanding, at its best outside in the sunlight, where the contrast is well balanced, the colours naturalistic and the sharpness impressive, particularly evident on the wide shots and facial close-ups. Interiors sometimes have a slightly softer feel, and what is either grain or digital noise is quite prominent on plain surfaces or backgrounds of a single colour like skies or walls. What might catch you out is the aspect ratio and image quality switch for the sometimes unannounced film-within-a-film interviews, which are 1.78:1 anamorphic (the scope frame is opened up) and have a much more recognisable digital feel.
The Dolby stereo 2.0 track is an appropriately subtle affair, so subtle I wasn't sure it was stereo at all until I slapped some headphones on. The dialogue is always clear and the music displays a pleasing tonal range, but it's a front and centre affair.
Interview with cast (15:43)
Leading ladies Heidi M. Sallows and Cat Smits, in a nicer location and with better lighting than we had at our disposal when they spoke to us (see below), cover the expected ground in interesting detail, including how the project came about, how Heidi (a non-professional) was cast, and how they worked with the director. As with our interview, they also talk openly about how the two became a couple, and Cat reflects on how her character's journey reflected her own.
Bumblefuck USA trailer (1:34)
A well assembled and quietly seductive sell.
There is also a director's statement on the inside sleeve of the DVD cover.
An involving drama on a typically solid Peccadillo DVD, one we have no hesitation in recommending. It's also a rather special one for us, being the first DVD whose cover art sports not one but two positive quotes from our esteemed reviewer. Listen to the man.
Lead actors Cat Smits and Heidi M. Sallows talk about the film to Timothy E. RAW at the 2012 POUT Film Festival. The video has been optimised to be viewed full screen at 720p, which can be selected in the settings pop-up in the control bar.
* Bumblefuck USA was screened at the 2012 Pout Film Festival and is released on DVD by Peccadillo Pictures.