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by Jay Seaver

"Either just outside or just in."
3 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 21: Apparently,"mope" is porn-industry slang for someone who hangs around, eager to be a part of what's going on but not having what it takes to actually break in. I must admit, I could do without knowing this, though that's admittedly the same general reaction I have to grotty little movies about this business that mostly leave me wanting a shower afterward. "Mope" tells a worthy story that people tend to shy away from, but it certainly does spend a lot of time wallowing in the muck, even by the sordid standards of movies about porn.

The biggest mope in this movie (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) goes by the name Steve Driver; he's relocated from the east coast to make his dreams of being an adult film star come true, despite being skinny, not particularly well-endowed, and possessed of some pretty nasty body odor. A bit of performance anxiety at a sort of open audition introduces him to a kindred spirit in "Tom Dong" (Kelly Sry), who also does tech support and builds websites to stay in that orbit. They convince a bottom-tier producer (Brian Huskey) to give them a chance, but it's immediately clear that Steve's ambitions are unrealistic (to say the least) and his psyche fragile, and his disruptive behavior leaves Tom torn between what is likely his only friend and having an actual place in the world he's obsessed with.

Many films might start out in a less-extreme place, or jump back to it after an attention-getting flash-forward, but director Lucas Heyne and his co-writers are in some ways more interested in a finer distinction that could get lost if they weren't looking so closely at the line between Tom's consuming fandom and Steve's obsession. It can be a fine line and particularly blurred if the comparison is a healthy interest in one's hobby, but watching the space between Steven and Tom form is instructive and often compelling. It's not exactly applicable to any sort of enthusiasm - Heyne and company recognize that there are some very specific issues with exploitation in this industry - but there's a special horror in observing that Tom can pull back and compromise, but Steve's mental illness won't let him.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett gives an uncomfortably impressive performance as Steve, making him pleasant enough in his delusion, always pushing forward rather than ever pausing for a second to deliberately ignore what the more rational people around him are saying. There's confusion to his anger and strain as his assumptions are challenged, but he's very rarely overtly sinister. It's important that Stewart-Jarrett never makes Steve an unnerving weirdo or quite crosses the line where he's too childlike, but instead makes him feel just functional enough to get along until he finds his niche.

Kelly Sry, meanwhile, has Tom never quite able to have the same blithe attitude as his friend; even when he's seemingly relieved to be able to be so openly enthusiastic about porn, there's always the sense that he expects to hold back, or that the possibility of compromise is in his head. He's not instinctively pragmatic, but he can see that the world is not going to bend to fit his desires, and it gives the viewer a more complicated relationship with him, as one appreciates his frustration but gets oddly disappointed when he pushes back against Steve, for the contradictory reasons of wishing he had the same sort of pure heart but disappointment that he doesn't recognize that Steve's not entirely functional enough to be treated like other people.

That's all well-done, but it turns out that there is not a whole lot of distance between establishing all of that at the start and the climactic events that drew the filmmakers to the story, and they fill it out with seemingly every detail they could find, and it makes the story inch forward, repeating certain scenarios in a way that's numbing and can feel like nothing more than confirming what the movie said half an hour earlier. There's value to making the audience stew, to feel in their bones that Steve and Tom are among bottom-feeders and the reality of this life is never going to match their imaginations, but once that has sunk in, there's still plenty of time for to start sneaking peeks at one's watch or be tempted by the fast-forward button. It's a slow-enough grind that when things do start picking up, it feels kind of unnatural, like the film has built up too much inertia to believably escape without a bigger external push.

Tastes vary, of course, and what one person sees as a patience-testing rut is another's slow burn which really lets them soak up the world in which the film takes place. "Mope" is drawn just far out enough to make it difficult to appreciate its uncomfortably true performances and clear gaze in real time, though worthy of attention for those that don't mind a film making them uncomfortable.

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originally posted: 05/10/19 02:40:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Boston Underground Film Festival 21 For more in the Boston Underground Film Festival 21 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Lucas Heyne

Written by
  Lucas Heyne
  Zack Newkirk

  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
  Kelly Sry
  Brian Huskey
  David Arquette

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