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Tormenting the Hen
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by Jay Seaver

"Some neat ideas looking for a movie."
2 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: I did not enjoy "Tormenting the Hen" when it initially seemed to just be an attempted work of discomfort, and I found myself liking it less when it seemed to end by delegitimizing that discomfort, even if I did grudgingly respect the way it did so. The film's unusual rhythms and often-confrontational nature may score points with those who count being non-mainstream as a virtue in and of itself, but something can be both peculiar and tedious, something that is too often the case here.

It starts in New York City but soon moves to Long Island, where would-be patron of the arts Sarah (Josephine Decker) has invited Claire (Dameka Hayes) to be the playwright-in-residence at the local theater. While she attempts to get actors Joel (Brian Harlan Brooks) and Adam (Dave Malinsky) on the same page as her, her fiancee Monica (Carolina Monnerat) is back at the rented guest house, unable to fully enjoy studying the trees in the nearby woods because Mutty (Matthew Shaw), the groundskeeper for the property that his family owns, quickly goes from being a bit odd to being downright intrusive, and Claire doesn't quite see how it's actually starting to scare Monica.

Filmmaker Theodore Collatos has some potentially interesting places to go here, especially when his imagination is leading him to genuinely odd places. Mutty tells Monica early on that the guest house used to be a chicken coop, and that results in her and the audience occasionally jumping to thinking opening doors and strange noises may be ghost chickens, a delightfully original and absurd cause of unease. The theater stuff may be a little inside-baseball at times, but the way it presents everybody involved as kind of puffed-up and self-important though still not egomaniacal monsters. There is a nice balance of obviously imposing and absurd about the way Mutty intrudes upon the guests' desire for a little peace and quiet.

The cast by and large avoids any sort of artificial smoothness in how they present their characters, so if they ever stumble, it's at least in the direction of people who believably haven't been rehearsing their words or trying to express an emotion perfectly. There's certainly always something a bit affected about the theater people, from Josephine Decker's Sarah clearly trying to make herself seem less shallow to Dameka Hayes's Claire attempting to be both authoritative and above the fray when dealing with her two bickering actors. The most interesting performances come from Carolina Monnerat and Matthew Shaw, who are mostly outside the theatrical drama. Shaw makes sure that Mutty has a personality outside a certain specific set of twitches - I'd actually be curious to find out if he's trying to show Mutty as trying to give the impression that he's one thing and not another to make his behavior more acceptable, which is a level of self-determination not often attributed to that sort of character. Monnerat, meanwhile, is often outside the main action, but she does well in showing Monica's increasing agitation where Mutty is concerned without it overwhelming the nice character work she does elsewhere, simultaneously finding delight in learning about the local flora while also feeling very much an outsider despite her love for Claire.

Unfortunately, this raw material never becomes a particularly interesting story, or even any sort of mood piece. The audience learns odd things like how the house used to be a chicken coop but they seem like random facts; any metaphor about Monica being trapped is a stretch. What's going on at the theater and at the guest house barely intersects, and when those threads do cross, it's not a situation where personalities that had previously been kept separate interact in interesting ways. They both also come to anticlimactic endings that seem like they should be bigger deals as inversions of expectations, but neither has the set-up for it, and both happen so close to the end that there's no time to see Monica and Claire react.

Collatos also has a tough time sustaining visual interest. He opens on a kind of a neat scene, with gilded-age music playing over a present-day train station, contrasting the romantic and the mundane, but it's a contrast that the film doesn't maintain. He's seldom able to convey the sinister beneath the drably ordinary, and his too-frequent use of extreme close-ups tend to separate the emotion they're meant to convey from the causes of it without actually giving the audience something to examine closely.

There's some ambition to "Tormenting the Hen", and potential, but perhaps not so much in the way of actual results. When it finished, I felt like I'd heard a distinctive voice but one which is as likely to distance a viewer as create curiosity, a dreary result to achieve.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31314&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/01/17 23:15:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Theodore Collatos

Written by
  Theodore Collatos

Cast
  Carolina Monnerat
  Matthew Shaw
  Dameka Hayes



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