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by Jay Seaver

"Improvised oddity."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm glad I saw "Exley" in a crowded theater with people on either side of me, because if I were seeing it on DVD or streaming or other medium that involved me being home in my living room, I might have bailed on it after twenty minutes or a half hour, instead of making it to the end by dint of being penned in. Not that I'd necessarily advise sticking it out to the end for everyone, but it does get better as it gets stranger.

Exley (Shane Twerdun) enters the scene getting beat up behind a bar. Janey (Eliza Norbury) helps him home, and stays the night, but the next morning he gets a call with bad news - his mother is dying. He's in Vancouver, but she's on the other side of the country, and a plane ticket costs a thousand dollars he doesn't have. So he starts hitting everybody he knows up for money, and while that doesn't go well, one knows a guy who can help him out - but what he asks sends Exley off in a series of strange directions.

Though there is a writing credit, I'm guessing that what Bill Marchant came up with was more outline than script, as the final film was billed in the program and Q&A as being entirely improvised. It's the second film I saw at the festival to make that claim, and especially in the early going, it's the same sort of aggravating experience: The other actors don't seem to be working with Twerdun, but instead seem to see themselves in competition with him and each other. Oh, they might not be in the same scene, but that just means that they don't know how loud they have to yell and how crazy they have to act to be remembered, which means that they're all hitting full volume quickly. It's headache-inducing and ridiculous.

And yet, by the end, ridiculous isn't such a terrible thing. Where the first half of the movie is built on uncomfortably realistic situations, Exley's later adventures find him wandering into more surreal territory. In some ways, the movie becomes easier to swallow as this happens, despite the fact that Exley deserves these miseries less, there's more overt physical violence, and there are points where things make absolutely no sense whatsoever: The overacting works a little better outside of a realistic context, actors are more likely to go for dry wit over shrieking hysteria (though there's still plenty of that), and there's more surprise than sad inevitability as these scenarios unfold. There's a fun factor in watching a guy try to extricate himself from strange situations that is missing from watching someone who's kind of a jerk reap more than he's sown, even if it is a sort of pitch-black humor.

It's to director Larry Kent's credit that he transitions between the two halves smoothly enough that what annoyed in the first half might just be a facet of Exley's heightened world. He and his crew embrace the low-budget nature of the shoot without exaggerating it, so that the way Exley is just squeaking by (when he's doing that) is reflected in the look and feel of the movie. He's a genuinely independent filmmaker and a practiced one, able to get a surprising amount out of scant resources.

His cast is still a bit suspect. Shane Twerdun is the only one who persists throughout the entire film, and he's all right - not really polished, but usually in the way that people can be unrefined in real life. Given that the bulk of the movie is improvised, he probably shares a lot of credit with Kent and Marchant for the shape of the the picture, including how very unsympathetic and self-pitying Exley can seem at times. A few supporting actors do well in their scenes - mostly the ones who go for a bit of restraint - but the majority are cringe-worthy, with "heightened reality" only able to cover for so much.

When the dust finally settles, "Exley" isn't a great movie. It may not even be a good one. But it's better than it was when it started, and it's at least never boring.

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originally posted: 08/24/11 13:55:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Larry Kent

Written by
  Bill Marchant

  Shane Twerdun
  Niall Matter

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