Frills and extravagance can be enchanting in the right circumstance, but they’re unnecessary when it comes to telling a good story. So it’s understandable and gratifying when filmmakers don’t regard a small budget or tight focus as a hindrance to producing a good movie. Accordingly, you won’t find a giant robot, world-shattering military campaign, or indestructible super-spy in one of the finest feature films of the year to date — The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a deeply satisfying, bittersweet, and brutally honest coming-of-age tale set in San Francisco during the mid-1970s as adapted by screenwriter-director Marielle Heller from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel/memoir.
Although not quite as impressive and resonant as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, here are two new, comparatively modest and exceedingly different movies that are further proof that less can be more.
Break Point might be misconstrued as a vanity project because actor Jeremy Sisto top-lined, co-wrote, and co-produced this earnest little film about a dissolute doubles tennis player desperate to reignite his career. But that would ignore how charming, witty, insightful, and emotionally satisfying the film turns as Jimmy Price (Sisto) tries to reteam with his estranged brother/former doubles partner Darren (David Walton) and take aim at qualifying for the U.S. Open.
It’s going to be a particularly rough road for the brothers because Darren can’t stand his willful, immature, self-destructive sibling, and he retired from tennis years ago when Jimmy dumped him for a more accomplished partner. Their father Jack (J.K. Simmons) — a droll veterinarian who has been more than tolerant toward his balky sons — doesn’t hold out much hope for a reunion. Countering Jimmy’s inability to get out of his own way, Darren is crippled by his own inertia, resigned to toiling as a junior high school substitute teacher and incapable of professing his affection for Jack’s cute and perky assistant, Heather (Amy Smart). When summer rolls around and the semester ends, Darren finds himself shadowed by his former student Barry (Joshua Rush), a needy 11-year-old boy looking for a father figure, and coerced into reteaming with Jimmy.
Whether these characters come into conflict or come together, we need to care about them, including Jimmy, and we have to buy into what’s going on. The actors are certainly up to the task, led by Sisto. After earning kudos as the damaged soul he played on the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under, he starred in the short-lived ABC-TV sit-com Suburgatory as an amiable single dad dealing with a precocious teenage daughter and flirtatious neighbors after moving from the city to the suburbs. So he can do unhinged as well as loveable. Walton, the male lead in the recent television domestic comedy About a Boy, is solid here; the canny Simmons, on the heels of his Oscar-winning tour de force in Whiplash, is as reliable as usual; Smart is effortlessly appealing; and thank the fates that Rush is the kind of child performer who doesn’t encourage your gag reflex. In fact, Break Point — deftly directed by Jay Karas — is refreshingly unsentimental, while still encouraging the audience to root for its dysfunctional, ultimately decent coterie.
Break Point opens Sept. 4 in San Francisco.
Is there anything more fun than a tongue-in-cheek low-budget horror film? Well, yeah. Lots of things, but that doesn’t take away from the giddy pleasures of movies like Slither (alien meteor changes small-town residents into one big pile of angry, dangerous goo); Re-Animator (loony science professor develops a serum to bring back the dead, even the dismembered variety); or Tremors (giant, destructive sand worms terrorize a Nevada desert town until some good ol’ boys fight back). And now, we have Cooties. Well, not literally. But in this zany, gory romp, a passel of middle-school students come down with an infection that’s easily passed on and won’t be stopped by mere cootie repellent — a zombie-making virus that forces the faculty to fight back against their charges or be torn apart and devoured. So much for decent cafeteria food.
While not quite as chilling as the junior demons of Village of the Damned or Children of the Corn, these bloodthirsty kiddie ghouls are more than a little disconcerting. As a counter-measure, we have the frankly hilarious machinations of the teachers under siege. They include one guy spending his first day on the job (Elijah Wood of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy); his ex-girlfriend (Alison Pill of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom); and her fiancé, the school’s phys-ed instructor (Rainn Wilson from the U.S. version of The Office). Wilson is particularly in his element serving as the comic lynchpin of the proceedings. Watching that threesome navigate a love triangle while running for their lives is one of the treats of Cooties. Another is the unabashed slapstick splatter generated by pubescent killing machines and their victims.
I guess this is what happens when Leigh Whannell, the co-creator of Saw and Insidious, and Ian Brennan, the co-creator of Glee, team up to write a screenplay: bloody, laugh-out-loud chaos, with a bunch of jump-out-of-your-seat scares, machinated by co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. If that fits your bill, catch Cooties.
Cooties opens Sept. 18 in San Francisco