Retrograde: Slamdance Review. By Daniel Pollock.
Debuting at Slamdance this year, Retrograde is an exercise in austerity; it shows how much you can achieve with so little, and how you can pinpoint an entire generation ageing clumsily into their 30s and 40s with one tale of total mediocrity.
Molly is an average employee at a bland tech startup who takes a day off to help her new housemate move in, and subsequently gets into a traffic altercation with a police officer – a charge she strongly denies. What begins as a minor setback quickly snowballs into an issue that threatens to derail her relationships, career and emotional stability as she takes every available bureaucratic pathway not in an attempt to avoid a fine or to prove her innocence, but to prove that she’s right and somebody else is wrong.
This is a film that captures modern Western entitlement in such a fascinating way – each character sees themselves as the lead in their own story, no matter how mind-numbingly boring they may be; her work colleague and housemate each share stories with interesting characters involved, but they place themselves squarely in the centre, avoiding the point of their own tales. They flee from the fringes to the comfort of the centre, much like Molly’s futile attempts to use Canadian institutions of bureaucracy to delay the inevitable. But even when they’re the star of the show, it’s never their fault – Molly’s hangups are reflected primarily by her housemate’s obsession with astrology, pointing to a series of charts and planets that determined your fate and traits from birth – a sort of cosmic passing of the buck.
The cinematography does a great job in framing Molly as a lonely force unto herself – every time she finds herself interacting with another person, she is either alone in the frame, communicating over the phone or through cracks in doors, or turned away from the camera – it seems we rarely if ever see her face alongside her “friends”, and if we do, it’s obscured, it’s in profile, and it’s never during a friendly chat. No matter what, though, she will dominate the frame. I would have liked to see this stylistic choice develop as the film progressed, but it mostly maintained its thematic power until the final credits.
Director Adrian Murray also gets a cross-section of strong, embarrassingly realistic performances from his mains, with Molly Reisman delivering a particularly watchable unpleasantness in the lead role. The film hinges on her ability to toe the line between charismatic and pathetic, which she handles with aplomb. Funnily enough, we never actually find confirmation either way if she committed the traffic offence or not, but it hardly matters – the situation itself reveals everything we need to know about her, and about the way she deals with the people in her orbit – no loyalty, no commitment, all just miniature battles to be won.
It’s the tasteful tastelessness that shows like Girls explored, though there’s a level of irony here that surpasses even what Lena Dunham was trying to achieve. The unashamed dullness on display is enough to not only make your skin crawl, but have it slide off your body, sweep round a corner and die of shame somewhere. It’s a nasty film, depicting such weaponised mundanity that it borders on psychological horror. Watch this, then do the opposite.
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