By Mitch F. Anderson
The homecoming is hardly a new topic for independent cinema. From Garden State to Young Adult, films exploring the awkwardness, anxiety, and discomfort of a protagonist in the midst of an emotional event or internal crisis returning to their small hometown from the big city have become a staple of indie film to the point of cliché. Though Donald Cried may sound like another entry in this tradition on paper, first time writer/director Kris Avedisian deserves credit for finding new territory in this story type. It also helps that he’s crafted a great comedy/drama in the process.
The film follows Peter (played by Jesse Wakeman), a Wall Street banker, returning to his hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island to settle the affairs of his deceased Grandmother. The film begins in media res with Peter finding that he’s lost his wallet just as he arrives at his Grandmother’s house in a taxi. Finding himself with no options for money or transportation, Peter realizes that his only source of help is across the street in the form of Donald (Avedisian), Peter’s socially awkward and unfiltered former best friend from days of youth he clearly wishes to leave in the past. As Donald takes Peter on various errands around town, the impossible divide between the two men becomes clear: as Peter wishes to settle the matters of his Grandmother’s passing, potentially have a fling with local realtor Kristen (Louisa Krause), and leave Warwick as quickly as possible, Donald wishes to reignite his bond with Peter, show him how the town and their old friends have changed, and even return to their days of anarchy. It should be no surprise that these two sets of plans do not mesh together. What does surprise is the skill with which Avedisian balances the “cringe” humor and awkwardness inherently present in the two men’s relationship and the weight and reality of the film’s dramatic reveals.
It’s a testament to Avedisian’s immediate filmmaking talent that each character and scene has an instant sense of history to them; there are no clumsy monologues about Peter’s efforts to reinvent himself in the big city after leaving small town life behind, or about Donald’s loneliness and inability to connect with others. There is no emotionally manipulative score, with score in fact being abandoned entirely in favor of diegetic sound and music. This naturalism is reflected in the film’s handheld camerawork and cinematography, observing the mute, chilly color palate of mid-winter Rhode Island. Avedisian clearly knows every nook and cranny of Warwick, crafting in the process a working class town representative of much of America, filled with burnouts and people doing their best to get by, a town with its glory days behind it and cynicism for the days to come, and with more than a few pitch-black tunnels to compliment its over-lit gas stations. Though Avedisian chronicles the almost surreal removal from the “present” in towns like this, and avoids any political or personal demonization through his dedication to naturalism, it isn’t hard to guess which way Warwick swayed in last year’s Presidential Election.
It would be a grave mistake to read Avedisian’s multi-hyphenate efforts on the film behind and in front of the camera as selfishness. Though the writer/director/actor knows exactly how to embody Donald’s detestable and sympathetic sides with equal measure, the film’s beating, discomforting heart lies in his onscreen chemistry with Jesse Wakeman. As Peter and Donald, Wakeman and Avedisian respectively embody a true lived-in friendship doomed to be strained upon trying to relive the past. Over the course of the film’s almost real-time chronicling of Peter’s visit, their relationship runs nearly the entire emotional spectrum, from warm nostalgia to bitter anger to resigned sadness, growing more complex in step with the film’s dramatic reveals. The underlying toxic masculinity of their friendship is strongly reminiscent of the male pairing at the center of Joel Potrykus’ breakout indie Buzzard (a more than suitable hypothetical double bill with Donald Cried). Supporting roles are perfectly cast as well, with particularly great work by Louisa Krause, again proving herself as one of independent film’s best supporting actresses by bringing life to a brief role, and Ted Arcidi, once the real-life Strongest Man in the World, playing Donald’s boss in one of the film’s most discomforting scenes. Avedisian’s world-building wouldn’t amount to much without characters to populate it, and even in his first feature, he clearly knows how to breathe life into a world that is too lived-in and expansive for a simple “cringe comedy”.
Donald Cried is not only a shot in the arm for the seemingly bone-dry “homecoming” subgenre of independent film, it is a gripping, hilarious, meditative arrival of a new filmmaking talent. As he paints a pitch-perfect portrait of a surrealist small-town working class America, writer/director/ actor Kris Avedisian manages to observe both the posturing and discomfort in the relationship between two old friends, and the painful truths both must face over the course of the film’s plot. The end results play like Beavis & Butthead by way of the Dardenne Brothers. Here’s hoping that Avedisian has a long career ahead of him.