“Relaxer” is a dark comedy, semi-dystopian film from Joel Potrykus. The film follows an unhygienic, unkept slacker named Abbie (Joshua Burge.) The year is 1999, Abbie accepts a challenge from his callous older brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) to beat the mysterious and believed to be unbeatable level 256 in Pac-Man, but, there is a catch, Abbie cannot move from the couch and has only until Y2K, New Year’s Day 2000, to complete the challenge. If he does, Cam will give him 100,000 dollars.
When I use the word bizarre to describe this film, I mean bizarre. Audiences watching this piece may see similarities to “Slacker” (1990, Richard Linklater,) and there are, but I saw something much more disturbing. When I was watching this film I was reminded of “Room” (2015.) Not entirely due to the setting never changing from Abbie’s living room, but more due to the fact that his brother Cam almost felt like a sadistic kidnapper.
From the beginning we see Cam abusing Abbie both mentally and physically, in one instance forcing him to drink copious amounts of milk until he vomits, a scene so gross and disturbing it reminded me of “A Clockwork Orange” (1971.) In that way I began to empathize with Abbie, this wasn’t just some burnout or stoner film, this character was actually being abused by most of the people around him.
Abuse can do strange things to people. It can isolate them, either voluntarily or involuntarily, make them completely lose their sense of self and rely on their abuser for any shred of self-worth, and even cause them completely retreat from society. In Abbie’s case, he completely shuts himself off from the outside world in order to play video games. In this sense the film is deeply dark and depressing. A portrait of a guy who most people would just refer to as a loser is actually a suffering, lost soul with no direction or hope.
Potrykus effectively used the only space he had, the suburban Michigan living room, and made the film’s cinematography and singular location work. DP Adam J. Minnick did well with using slow pans and subtle camera movements to widen the space, additionally, the clever use of sound design and foley brought the outside inside so we feel like more than one thing is happening.
Joshua Burge really holds the film together and does an excellent job acting from the same spot, not an easy task. His character is gross, repulsive, and you can almost smell him through the screen. He embraces the stench and crafts a great performance, I could see him working with someone like Jody Hill in the future.
Much of the dialogue, written by Potrykus, was perhaps darkly funny, but the entire thing was so abrasive that I did find it hard to watch. It felt like a marathon to see if I could make it through this film and get to the payoff at the end, which did come but only lasted about 10 minutes. That being said, if Potrykus ever does go mainstream I can see his films being darkly funny and sinister, hopefully expanding their breadth to include a wider audience.
I can’t exactly recommend this for that wide audience Potrykus will hopefully capture in the future, as it is more of an indie think piece. If you can sit and watch someone play a video game on a 1999 couch covered in sweat and spoiled milk for 91 minutes and try to gather a deeper meaning of isolation and social regression, it may be for you. There is a lot of meaning here, but it is a tough one to digest.
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