Tapping a warm vein of nostalgia gone cold, POLLYWOGS warns us not to go home

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Rating: ★★★

Glossier, more superficial film experiences of family tend towards hysteria (see August: Osage County). Co-directors of Pollywogs, Karl Jacob and T. Arthur Cottam aren’t interested in skeletons falling out of cupboards and screaming matches that end in tears. Through six months of rehearsal with the actors, building their characters from the ground up around a basic story outline, the filmmakers have authentically hit upon that awkwardness familiar to people whose home is no longer where their heart is. In real life, anguished, histrionic speeches don’t solve problems, they simply exacerbate them, and the things we’d like to get of our chests, more often than not are held in check for fear of offending others.

Such is the case with Dylan (Karl Jacob), a man of modest, sanguine temperament whose girlfriend walks out on him, taking all their shared belongings with her and leaving the house bare – effectively erasing their life together. Rather than break stuff and rage against what’s happened to him, Dylan returns to the countrified calm of his Minnesota hometown hoping to recapture a part of his life before it all went to shit.

Coming home just in time for a family reunion, Pollywogs captures an atmosphere of long-lost relatives getting together, with ease and naturalness. Sat round slouched in lawn chairs, shooting the shit about the old days, you believe these people and feel as though you’ve met them before. Though I’m from the UK, I’ve often attended comparable shindigs over Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas in rural upstate New York. Surrounded by people I didn’t know, who’ve known each other all their lives, I got to intimately observe how they spoke, ate and drank; the surface casualness of their conversation, and how different groups splintered off to gather round the grill, hold heated NFL arguments round the television (regardless of whether a game was on) or go swimming in the local lake with beers in hand. In its unhurried opening scenes, Pollywogs gets so much of this right, concentrating on the dynamics of group behaviour whilst quietly establishing backstory. The antithesis of a dramatic movie, these people’s lives are largely without incident, but feel important enough to them, which is enough for an audience to feel likewise.

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At first, Dylan appears to be having a grand ‘ol time catching up with his cousin Julie (Red Flag’s Jennifer Prediger), and her husband, Bo (Larry Mitchell), but all that reminiscing has dire consequences when Dylan is reunited with Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil), back in town to look after her ailing grandmother. Dylan and Sarah’s friendship goes back to early childhood, though pre-teen feelings they developed for one another were left undeclared when Sarah’s family upped sticks and moved to a religious compound in Colorado when she was twelve. Not far off thirty, neither of them have seen each other since, their awkward silences keeping the conversation from going beyond a time when they were still in single digits. Tentative talk around the real issues is the  indirect route by which the film arrives at its central subject: the tension between what their childhood infatuation represents and how it effected the way they turned out.

For Dylan, Sarah is Girl Zero, the reason his every subsequent relationship has gone wrong. His barely repressed, unrequited feelings torment him while Sarah is silently unsympathetic, even though she herself was in his same, unrequited position years ago when they were children. Now back at home, Sarah may not have moved on with her life, but she has moved on from Dylan, who’s shrouded the relationship in the romantic gloom of predestination, as if it were always going to wait around for him to rekindle it.

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Endlessly self-analytical and at a loss to explain why they haven’t simply fallen back into one another’s arms, Dylan inarticulately talks in circles for both of them, a mostly one-sided dialogue that scrutinises the way we forcibly impose interpretations on our experience and explores the idea of love as a form of selfishness. Dylan being utterly incapable of putting himself in another person’s shoes, doesn’t stop to consider that Sarah may not want to have an in-depth discussion about a period in her life inextricably linked to living in a Christian cult. While there are no obvious indicators of abuse, Sheil plays Sarah with a weirdly shy sensitivity, that suggests more serious emotional damage behind her porous mask of eyelid-fluttering passivity. A fireball in Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Sheil’s dialled down on the opposite end of the spectrum here, unknowable, unattainable and, outwardly refusing the manic pixie dream girl stereotype Dylan projects onto her to lay the blame for his romantic failings.

A drunken sex scene in a sauna is a mistake from the first sweaty fumble, and so far from how Dylan has long imagined it, as to be cheerlessly Chekhovian. Emotionally stunted or willfully ignorant, Dylan and Sarah remain stuck in the wormlike form of the title’s insects, awaiting a metamorphosis that’ll move them beyond childhood. Tapping a warm vein of nostalgia gone cold, Pollywogs warns us that even when we have to go home, we probably shouldn’t.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on February 12, 2014

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