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Girl interrupted
A film review of BUMBLEFUCK USA by Timothy E. RAW
 

A great discovery at the close of the first six months of film 2012, Bumblefuck USA is the unassuming but remarkable announcement of the 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. On-screen depictions of region specific small towns where the side streets stretched out like universes, poetic impressions of lived-in reality that seemed to exist long before and after the films that explored them.

Likewise, the extraordinary characters sparsely populating these everyday tales of the Anywhereville American heartland were seemingly carved from the same dignified understatement of their surroundings. 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 presented as, sun-dappled snapshots of nostalgic discovery and imoportune hope.

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 long since been co-opted as a simulacrum of style synonymous with the instruction manual copycat indies deservedly trapped in purgatory of the festival circuit. Johnston seems to instinctively understand this, harkening back to an altogether more organic, creatively inspired era, before the first world problems of mumblecore over-saturated American independent film. Bumblefuck USA once more gives its small town inhabitants express permission to dream big. Outward looking and humble in their collective aspirations for change, it's a welcome change of record from the sadomasochism of mumblecore's privileged inertia.

When outsider Alexa 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 droves 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, a small 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 upon returning home, committed suicide shortly after coming out of the closet. Seeking closure and understanding, she interviews other gay members of the community rocked by Matt's death; both friends and neighbors who knew him well, hoping to get a handle on what pushed him over the edge. Emotions run high in Alexa's investigation, the documentary footage as it is, entirely comprised of locals' real life 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 after 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, magic hour lensing is picturesque, romanticized still further when viewed through the eyes of a foreigner. I'll gladly take Bumblefuck over New Romney any day. Visually this character introduction also announces in unequivocal terms, the stamp of director Johnston and cinematographer, a too-humid-to-be-idllyic summer haze that hangs over the town from the opening frame, intensifying the air of sexual confusion.

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 imagines 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 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 () 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 wakes up one morning at Jennifer's place after partying all night at the local gay bar, it's fascinating to watch her in a disorientated state, being 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, precisely because she can smell her own. 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 has staked its claim as a more than worthy contemporary equivalent.

 


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 today by Peccadillo Pictures. Due to some oversensitivity on Amazon's part, you may have trouble locating it through a regular search, but you can track it down through this link.

Bumblefuck USA

USA 2011
91 mins
director
Aaron Douglas Johnston
producers
Judith de Weert
Aaron Douglas Johnston
screenplay
Aaron Douglas Johnston
Cat Smits
cinematography
Hayo van Gemert
editing
Xander Nijsten
Marcel Vendrig
music
Wim Selles
production design
Ida Doodeman
starring
Heidi M. Sallows
Cat Smits
Ryan Gourley
Ryan Overton
Jeff Smith
John Watkins

distributor
Peccadillo Pictures
release date (DVD)
28 January 2013
review posted
28 January 2013

See all of Timothy E. RAW's reviews