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Relaxer
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by Jay Seaver

"Not easygoing or easy watching."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There is, I suppose, a good movie to be made about someone so dedicated to not being labeled a quitter that he just doesn't get off the couch until he has completed some sort of challenge, no matter how isolated it ultimately makes him, but this isn't it. It's just nasty and gross, never finding enough of its poor slob's ingenuity or enough pathos to make watching him interesting.

It starts in 1999, with Abbie (Joshua Burge) being bullied into a variation on the "drink a whole lot of milk" challenge by his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) while playing Nintendo; it ends about the way you'd think. Cam soon has another challenge for him: Finish Pac-Man[/I', through the allegedly-impossible level 256, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. No leaving the couch until he's done! There's money on the line, and Abbie doesn't have much else going on, so he calls a friend (Andre Hyland) to bring him some orange soda and the magazine which should give him all the tips and tricks he needs, but otherwise, he's mostly oblivious to the rest of the world.

And… That's pretty much it. The film continues on with various episodes as Abbie has the occasional visitor or faces new challenges in trying to get by, and there's an interesting sort of absurdity in play - the situation becomes desperate and disgusting, though not to quite the extent that it logically should be given the amount of time said to pass. Some of these bits have the nugget of a good sketch of sorts inside them, and it's probably better that writer/director Joel Potrykus is more inclined to see there is nowhere left for a scene to go and just fade out before starting the next one than he is to keep milking it, but there's not much that's truly inspired. Though individual bits have an underground comix sort of feel to them - dialogue either absent or profane as Potrykus pounds away at making sure every moment is gross and nasty - the movie is built to drag: Even if Abbie realizes this whole thing is stupid, he doesn't have the will to break out of it.

It's a depressing characterization to be committed to, but there's value in something like this being numbing. As a result, Joshua Burge deserves a fair amount of credit for what he does playing Abbie; it's got to be frustrating for an actor to only occasionally be able to do something that lights a character up, and where the most obvious way he gets to show his commitment to the project is allowing the filmmakers to get him sick on-screen. He's got bits that impress, though - moments of petty anger and discordant lack of engagement with other characters - and Burge seems committed to elaborating on early comments hinting at being abused and neglected as a child with his body language and haunted expression for the entire runtime.

There's a lo-fi focus on that sort of dehumanization that tag this movie not so much for the art houses but for the underground, using its full 91 minutes to try and impress on the audience what it means to feel that lacking in worth, pointedly avoiding a traditional arc. It's an earnest but alienating path to take, although it might work better for some if the various episodes had a clear direction or pattern rather than coming across as a homogeneously depressing porridge. Instead, the film begins to feel pointlessly mean, and seldom with interesting enough execution to maintain flagging interest. The opening bit, cruel as it tends to be, at least feels like an impressive single take, but nothing after that ever feels close to that inspired.

"Relaxer" lands on a tough line, where there's scant distance between a movie that effectively gets the audience into an unpleasant position and one that makes the viewer flee out of annoyance. There's enough to it that even the annoyed can at least see what it appears to be striving for. That doesn't make it a success, but at least it's a somewhat interesting failure.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32120&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/05/18 12:50:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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Directed by
  Joel Potrykus

Written by
  Joel Potrykus

Cast
  Joshua Burge
  David Dastmalchian
  Andre Hyland
  Adina Howard
  Amari Cheatom



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