(Release Date: March 04, 2006 [B-Movie Film Festival])
There is a fantasy sequence toward the middle of this movie that makes great use of the Straiton's Light and Shadow techniques and surreal camera eye, not to mention sound and revolving imagery. If the entire rest of the film had sucked it would have been worth the viewing for that alone. Luckily the rest of the film doesn't suck. Sure it could do with a bigger budget and a few more trims here and there to avoid a bit of the meandering this film goes through, but it's most certainly a satisfying viewing experience, and a joy for most any "Ultra Indie" fan!
Taking place in... oh, wait, I forget... uh... oh, yeah, Middlesex, this film tells the story of a group of young men and women who both love and hate their home. The problem is that some want to get the hell out and others want to seal themselves firmly in, either by settling into old patterns or quite simply refusing to grow up. Keith Ward is Leap, 23 years old and still partying all night with his friends and coming home to a house where he lives with his mother. The only really good thing he's got going for him is his very hot girlfriend, Alexis Katherine's Paige! The bad thing there is that Leap wants to stay and Paige wants to go off to college.
Though it's hard to question Paige's motives, Leaps are a bit more ambiguous. Though his friends and family are all in Middlesex, his family is anything but "Leave it to Beaver" and his friends consist of drug pushers, disaffected blue collar workers and stagnant lotharios.
In Straiton's exploration of Middlesex, he takes the viewer through the strange combination of the urban and the rural, the moral and the morbid, the country and the Hip Hop, the old and the new. He also makes a few brave comments on Racism herein that ring out pretty loudly. Unfortunately, with some of the choices he makes in this vein, it's hard to tell just where he's going. virtually every character, including those we're supposed to root for and identify with, throw the "N-Word" around like a mighty ball. The repeated theme, though certainly still a part of rural towns (and, to be frank, the big cities too, sadly), wears a little thin after a time.
That said, the character of Mike Wingfield's Turtle, an African-American kid with a killer set of dread locks, ends up being just about the most interesting character in the entire film. This is in no small part due to Wingfield's very presence on screen. Being that he doesn't carry your usual "leading man" look or feel, Wingfield's realistic and earthy portrayal of Turtle ends up feeling so tangible that he comes off as a buddy that we all might know from way back when. It's hard to believe this wasn't intentional on Straiton's part.
While I stand by my statement that Wingfield is the show-stealer in Middlesex, I also need to give a quick mention to Dustin Joseph (as Vic, Leap's Bar Tending Brother) and Wes Reid (as pusher Trevor "TK" Kennedy). Neither one of these guys is the watered-down or simplified "good guy" in the town. In fact, both of them wear their "Dark Sides" on their sleeves (albeit in very different ways). I can honestly say that both Reid and Joseph were fully immersed in their roles to the point that, frankly, there were times I didn't like them. This is, of course a compliment to their acting. These recognizeable, yet unique characters help round out a fine cast that also includes memorable performances by Becky Kellum, Michelle Foss, Cassandra Lisette, Carol Sue Fiest, Linda Scranton and a brief but unforgettable segment from Doris Wingfield as Turtle's Grandmother (appropriate casting, yes).
As a Drama, Big Fish in Middlesex offers up a great deal of comedy in its 113 minute run time. Straiton's comic flair shows its influences well and helps move the plot along nicely, especially in the occasional slow part. Straiton is also never afraid to be dramatic and even tragic in his true-to-life portrayal of this little group of old friends. Guilt and betrayal plays a big part here, but then, so does loyalty to a great degree... and all that without ever coming off as a Hallmark-esque Afterschool Special slice of sentimental hogwash.
On the other hand, though this is a mostly realistic film, some of the comic and dramatic moments here come off as somewhat forced and unbelievable. The cast, which is strong on the whole, comes off as a little flat, but only occasionally. Considering this is an independent film consisting of unknown actors, I have to say the cast pulls this off fantastically. Still, we also are greeted with almost too much of a good thing. Straiton knows comedy, he knows drama and his movie has the feel of a writer/ director/ producer/ editor who is constantly looking for what works. Often Straiton finds what he's looking for, but almost as often he milks that something for a bit too long stretching "funny" into "okay, next?". Further, there seems to be at least one too many sub-plots. Big Fish in Middlesex strikes me as (and interviews with Straiton seem to enforce this) a semi-fictionalized account of true events. This shows through in the many anecdotal flashback sequences that Straiton interlaces into the story. If this is a slice of life, it might have needed just a little less crust, not because every piece isn't interesting (it is) but because there's just a bit too much going on to really latch on to in a fully appreciative way. No doubt the editor in Straiton could have pulled out a sub-plot and made an entire bonus short, or even a sequel or companion piece if he wanted to.
If this sounds overly critical, it's not. This is constructive. Jonathan Straiton has a lot of skill with both writing and movie making, and as he hones his skills and finds his voice, I can see a great film in his future. To be sure, he has a way with casting. If I had any idea that so very many beautiful women lived in Small Town Virginia, I might have moved there instead. No wonder these guys never want to leave. As Big Fish in Middlesex stands, it's still a very watchable coming of age piece with an interesting take on the archetypal themes that make that subgenre great. Mike Wingfield steals the show here (that'll show those racist characters, eh, Turtle?) with his keen performance. The only negative there is that he ultimately comes off as more interesting than the principal leads.
Beautiful women, good acting, witty dialogue and the unique eye of an experimental director more than make this film worth watching. I would point out the disappointment I feel with the complete lack of nudity (barring Wes Reid's ass), but I get this. You cast the film with the local girls and many of the viewers will be friends and family... well, it's hard to work that into the contract. Then a few people really would feel like leaving Middlesex... Ah, Middlesex... the name means so much more now. Three Stars out of Five for Big Fish in Middlesex. Though occasionally familiar and occasionally displaying its estimated $3,000 budget, this film is better than most attempts at these themes that have come out of Hollywood in the past 30 years. One more brief pause before I close here... a film this good was made on a Three Thousand Dollar Budget? Kids, that's not "adjusted for inflation"! This film wrapped production in January of 2006, and it had a three thousand dollar budget? And it's this good? Somebody give Jonathan Straiton a grant... This guy knows what to do with his cash. Look me up then, Jon... I'll see you in the next reel!