'For as long as I can remember, I was waiting for my parents to die so I could commit suicide without guilt,' Owen (Adrian Grenier, "Entourage") tells us. The young man we meet is a lousy boyfriend, emotionally shut down, but one whom his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur, "The Final Girls") gently tends to during an epileptic seizure. When she announces she's pregnant, Owen's immediate reaction is hateful, but he comes around, opening up to heal his relationship. Then Isabel makes a demand that will expose the family secrets that have tormented the father of her child in a "Trash Fire."
This winner of the 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival Audience award is a twisted piece of Southern Gothic which pinpoints its writer/director Richard Bates Jr. ("Excision") as one to watch. Bates's filmmaking chops are evident in his spiky, caustic dialogue, psychologically framed, wide-angle visuals and the unnerving performances of his cast. If only his film had gone out with the bang his build deserved.
Owen and Isabel may fling vile recriminations at each other, but we can sense the love that was once more evident. Their families which weigh upon them, Owen having no use for Isabel's Bible thumping brother Caleb (Matthew Gray Gubler, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"). He's also tormented by memories of the fire he inadvertently caused years ago which took the lives of his mother and father and left his sister with third degree burns over 80% of her body. When Isabel says their new slate will depend upon two things, Owen readily agrees to apologize to her brother, but that second requirement, that he reconnect with his own family, makes him deeply wary.
Isabel immediately understands why when they're greeted at the rural home of his grandmother by the old woman brandishing a shotgun. Violet (Fionnula Flanagan, "The Others"), attired in what looks like Victorian mourning, is a religious nut, but one who has become unhinged by her own sexual appetites (the pastor who takes his leave as her grandson arrives clearly expected to stay the night). She is openly hostile to Isabel and tells the couple at dinner that Owen's sister Pearl eats alone 'because I find it hard to keep my food down while looking at her.' We hear Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord, "Excision") speaking in a voice that is at once childlike and older than her years. We see the young woman in a sheer, white nightgown, her face obscured by her long, stringy blond hair as she takes an interest in Isabel akin to Norman Bates's obsession with Marian Crane.
Bates makes smart filmmaking choices, keeping us on his hook as his casts grow wilder and wilder. The film has been meticulously constructed from the shock of a mid-lovemaking seizure to the placement of objects within a scene (keep yours eyes on that aquarium to the left of Violet's shoulder as she discusses family business with her pastor, Sterling (Ezra Buzzington, 2006's "The Hills Have Eyes")). The art direction of a living room scene glows with 70's avocado and harvest gold, figures at a dining table defining a rigid pecking order. But although we finally learn the truth about Owen's torment, Bates's blood drenched finale doesn't provide a catharsis, a 'soft' landing for a razor sharp film. That's a shame, because leading up to it "Trash Fire" is dementedly on point.
Robin also gives "Trash Fire" a B-.
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