Lovers, Liars and Lunatics: suburban dystopia
If Amber Benson is one thing, it’s committed. During the production of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season, she juggled appearances on that show with work on her own independent project, an offbeat comedy called Chance, on which she served as lead actor, writer, producer and director. The film, shot on video with a budget of $25,000, was decidedly rough around the edges, but ultimately quite charming for all its eccentricities, and showed the multi-faceted Benson’s talent for writing quirky yet believable characters.
Fast forward four years, and her second film, on which she returns as star, writer, producer and director, and also adds film editor to her roster of talents, has just been released on DVD, like Chance sold directly through her production company, Benson Entertainment. Exactly how much it cost to make is unclear, but it seems to have been funded, at least partially, through a series of fund-raisers, auctions of personal possessions and of a series of Willow and Tara action figures. From the first film, it’s clear that a lot has changed. The source material is now 35mm film, and the camera setups are considerably more ambitious than those of its predecessor. It’s not always successful - there are some instances of truly bizarre framing, a handful of shots in which the focus is on something other than the main point of attention, and some rather problematic moments that lack establishing shots, making it difficult to get a feeling for the geography and positions of the various characters - but by and large the film has a slicker, more professional feel than that of Chance. Jakobine Motz’s cinematography is functional rather than particularly impressive (the lighting is rather flat), but, with the move from video to film, Benson has abandoned the hand-held, quasi-documentarian format of the previous film in favour of something more controlled. On the aural front, the dialogue recording is sometimes a little ropey, but the orchestral score, which kicks in occasionally but effectively, helps paper over the cracks.
The plot, meanwhile, is enough to sustain the 87-minute running time, but isn’t hugely substantial. Essentially, two incompetent robbers break into a suburban household, but quickly find themselves caught up in the neurotic family’s own dysfunctional relationships. Benson, this time, although given title billing, takes more of a back seat as far as acting goes, given that this is, for all intents and purposes, an ensemble piece, with eight main roles and a handful of secondary parts. The black humour of Chance, meanwhile, is maintained throughout, although the actors are at times hamstrung by a script that is very talky - Benson’s other writing credits are primarily as a novelist, and it shows in what appears to be an intermittent reluctance to show things visually (characters will frequently mutters to themselves phrases like “Fucking bitch!” and “I hate him!”, which should be self-evident to even the least attentive viewer).
The film also ends on something of a false note with a conclusion that seems intended partially to be blackly comedic and partially to be shocking: in a sense, the abrupt change of tone results in an ending that seems too dark to be successful given the film’s otherwise light-hearted tone.
Despite these problems, though, it’s hard not to admire the film for its bare-faced enthusiasm. Yes, it’s considerably slicker than Chance and, to some extent, more market-friendly (the narrative is more conventionally linear, there are no monologues to the camera, no guitar-strumming troubadours entering the scene to narrate the plot, and Benson has reigned in her use of the word “cunt”), but it’s still an odd and distinctive film with a decidedly hand-made feel to it. I’m not sure exactly how many people are going to end up seeing it, as the $30-33 (depending on whereabouts in the world you’re located) price tag, plus the fact that the DVD can only be ordered from the official web site, will put a lot of people off, but it deserves an audience. 7/10.