To Be FriendsReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/21/10 02:44:15
SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: "To Be Friends" is beautiful in so many ways - it is exquisitely shot and scored. The acting by Joelle Carter and Todd Stashwick is true and emotional, and director James Lawrence Eckhart lets the story unfold at the right pace. The thing is, while the dialog is unquestionably artful, it's also the case where beauty may or may not be in the eye of the beholder.A man (Todd Stashwick) and a woman (Joelle Carter) are driving to a cabin in a beautiful, secluded spot on the California coast. They are longtime friends, and she wishes that they were more; he has of late been wary of any romantic relationship, much less one with his best friend. They speak about it in aphorisms and riddles before addressing it directly, but also just spend a weekend enjoying each other's company and playing music together (he plays cello, she violin) before confronting the reason why they came to this place at this time.
There are certain expectations for the dialog in a modern movie, particularly one like To Be Friends that is, by and large, two people discussing the nature of friendship and romance, and where their relationship is situated on that spectrum. The usual inclination is to make it sound real, or at the very least, make it sound real plus two on the clever scale (how people wish they talked). Eckhart doesn't go for this; instead, he opts for a very theatrical mode of speech. Carter and Stashwick are not shouting to be heard in the balconies, but the words coming out of their mouths are, simultaneously, very declarative, laying the characters' feelings out there very directly, and very artificial. Nobody talks like this for very long, and watching it will likely bring to mind a one-act play taken off the stage and shot on location. It feels very different from even other talky films, and while some may enjoy the stylization, others (like myself, much of the time), will find the artificiality distancing.
As much as Eckhart's way of writing dialog may often feel like an odd match for cinema, his other filmmaking choices are well-made, and his collaborators are excellent. In addition to having his cast speak as if they were in a play, he often shoots the movie that way, sticking to one location at a time, keeping the composition constant, and holding shots for minutes at a time. Doing so allows him and the audience to maintain a tight focus on where the characters are emotionally; every step or turn toward or away from each other is given meaning (sometimes a little heavy-handedly, but not often). The actual cinematography by Josh Silfen is also quite good; it makes a virtue out of digital photography's innate sharpness to highlight the beauty of the setting as well as capture single tears without getting right in someone's face. The music by Ysanne Spevack is excellent as well, sometimes literally becoming the voices of the characters - like them, Ms. Spevack is a string specialist, and the contrast between the cello's mournful sound and the potentially more upbeat violin is a nice touch.
Having the characters officially go nameless is a bit of an affectation, especially since they're played well enough to be memorable individuals. Todd Stashwick is initially a bit curmudgeonly as the male lead, often giving the impression that he's had this conversation with his friend before and would rather not spend time on it now, but he's able to hit all the other bits of this character's personality in the right amounts at the right places; we see loyalty and affection beyond just his words and actions. Joelle Carter's as good if not better. Granted, she coughs kind of weird in one scene (funny, what minor things can momentarily break the spell of an otherwise excellent performance), but otherwise she makes her character delightfully vital, finding just the right mix of playful and determined. She does an understated (but all the more convincing for it) job of running down over the course of the film and the weekend.By the time "To Be Friends" has circled back around, there's much to praise about it. Those who can get into its odd speech patterns will find a sweet, affecting movie, and that eccentric dialog shouldn't prevent anybody from enjoying the rest.
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