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‘Downtown Owl’ review: Lily Rabe is the radiant hot-mess center of a gripping small-town tragicomedy


Some movies – many movies – are less than the sum of their parts. Owl in the inner city, the story of the waving and drinking and heartfelt, awkward encounters of a budding teacher in a fictional North Dakota town, has the distinction of being the exact sum of its parts. That’s not a knock; those ingredients are never short of captivating, driven by a playful and dynamic cinematic sensibility and a strong cast, with Lily Rabe holding the center with vibrant clarity and comedic chops. Rabe also steers the helm of the film, along with her life partner and fellow actor Hamish Linklater, and the tyro directors manage to tie the knot with their first feature and explore the overlap between agitated and quiet, between cartoon clarity and fear. to navigate.

Its source material, essayist Chuck Klosterman’s 2008 novel of the same name, isn’t so much a riveting story as a vibrant collection of personality types filtered through a hyperlocal 1980s vibe. Hamish’s screenplay strips out most of the pop culture commentary to focus on the character, putting a Great Plains twist on familiar indie tropes – misfits, misbehaviors, breakdowns, and breakthroughs. The whiteout prairie blizzard that books the story casts a shadow of fate that slips into the background of the alternately crazy and sad events, its impact surfacing and fully felt in the film’s shot-to-the-solar plexus closing sequence.

Owl in the inner city

It comes down to

A hoot, and full of heart.

Location: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Story)
Form: Lily Rabe, Ed Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, August Blanco Rosenstein, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wittrock, Henry Golding, Arianna Jaffier, Hamish Linklater, Arden Michalec, Ben Shaw, Emma Halleen
Drivers: Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater
Screenwriter: Hamish Linklater; based on the novel by Chuck Klosterman

1 hour 32 minutes

The main action begins in September 1983, when Rabe’s Julia Rabia arrives in Little Owl for a semester-long job as a high school teacher, after being recommended to the principal (a brief, comic twist by Linklater) by her professor father. The timing of this stint, she eagerly tells almost every person she meets, is to give space to her husband (unnamed, unseen, unheard) as he enters the final rounds of his Milwaukee dissertation. More than the blizzard, this is the shadow that hangs over the story: the way Julia’s marriage, including the possibility of children, hinges on her husband’s career plans as he strives for tenure track.

The disconnection between them is as clear as rural daylight in her drunken late-night phone calls home. If you’ve mourned that classic cinematic device of the one-sided phone call — the stuff of indelible movie moments through the ages, whose power simply can’t be matched by screen glances in text messages — Hamish’s screenplay revives the tactic, and Rabe does a superb job of Julia’s tense conversations with her husband, father and mother, which culminate in a heartbreaking sequence as she floats precariously over the edge, or perhaps the bottom.

In the novel, Julia and the other two protagonists – a college student and a seventy-year-old regular – do not interact; here they do so to varying degrees. The two sentient men are played to understated perfection: August Blanco Rosenstein as sad-eyed Mitch Hrlicka, the school’s reluctant backup quarterback, and Ed Harris as Horace Jones, whose life of quiet routine is molded around a shattering turn of events. on the home front. .

As for the other men in town, Julia gets a dazzling introduction on her first visit to Hugo’s, a downtown watering hole that the warden has warned her to avoid. For fellow faculty member Naomi, played by Vanessa Hudgens in delightfully rude motormouth mode, Hugo’s is the center of the Owl universe. Within minutes of her first appearance at the dive bar, Julia encounters a slew of lonely single men with alarming nicknames, two of whom are ready to take her to Valley City this weekend to see ETthat year-old hit movie they’ve heard so much about.

But when dashing buffalo farmer Vance Druid (Henry Golding) enters the bar in his cowboy hat and Wranglers, Julia shifts into a new state of alertness. She heeds Naomi’s admonition to “live a little.” Rabe is in full comedic flow with Julia’s hesitant overtures, and the friction is heightened by neon sign subtitles that mark the contrast between what she says to Vance and what she really means. It’s a clever way of underlining the gulf between her wacky, exuberant openness and his extreme restraint. But after a few promising, if one-sided exchanges, Julia takes that reticence as rejection, her deep disappointment with Vance fueled in part by her unspoken anger at her husband.

Like Mitch, who prefers basketball to the gridiron—a blasphemous penchant for the football-worshiping Owl—Vance has a mostly unfortunate connection to high school quarterbacking. Julia learns of this backstory of confused infamy and glory from Horace, who also breaks down his generally even-tempered attitude by denouncing school coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock) as a “bona fide sex criminal.” Mitch embarks on a mission to hold Laidlaw responsible for impregnating Tina (Arden Michalec), the classmate he has a crush on – a mission that feels disjointed for both the character and the film. He is aided by fellow students Eli (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose feverish hyperverbalism is reminiscent of Naomi’s, and Rebecca (Arianna Jaffier), a self-proclaimed genius who whispers in public settings such as Julia’s classroom.

The storylines can feel both convoluted and disjointed, but whether they come together with the utmost smoothness matters less than the way the characters’ disparate, clashing modes of communication reveal more and more about them. In this portrait of a remote and insular place, the talkativeness of both Eli and machine-gunned Naomi expose a spectacular self-confidence, but one tinged with desperation and thriving on conflict of the high school melodrama kind.

It’s no surprise that Rabe and Linklater, seasoned veterans of stage and film, pull such nuanced work from their cast. But they’ve done much more than that as helmers, with judiciously deployed meta-accents that hit intended chords and fluid imagery for this made-up small-town world (played by the Minneapolis-St. Paul area). In their lived-in details and their touches of sublime, production designer Francesca Palombo’s contributions are fantastic. And the cinematography of Barton Cortright (known for his formalist work with Ricky D’Ambrose, including The cathedral) uses widescreen framing in ways that refute rural clichés and embrace the tiniest details of the surreal.

Everything about Owl in the inner city is both earthy and elevated, many of its scenes fueled by the unexpected intertwining of sadness and hilarity, or anger and painful sweetness. Take the distant view of a conversation in the school gymnasium between Tina and Mitch, with almost everything between them unspoken, or the striking diamond-shaped window at the head of an invalid’s bed, like a gateway between flesh and spirit. And with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the soundtrack is an invigorating and evocative blend of Americana and, crucially, Elvis Costello, the latter being the only artist a key figure listens to.

If the characters’ hyped intrigue missions aren’t always crystal clear, the unraveling of Julia Rabia packs a narrative punch. Rabe, who so memorably played the title role in Mrs Stevens — she played a high school teacher at risk of making some very bad decisions — dives into this with gusto. Just like Julia, dressed up in teased hair and form-fitting outfits, waiting for Vance to walk through the door at Hugo’s as the bartender (Ben Shaw) praises her “stripper look.”

In Owl in the inner city, Rabe and Hamish capture a self-contained world bursting at the seams. And Rabe’s performance gives us someone who bounces off the narrow city walls and begins to find himself in the process, going from self-punishing facial gymnastics after every perceived faux pas to a drunken meltdown on – where else? – the high school soccer field. Perhaps she never remembers her mother, Jill Clayburgh, as much as she does here, imbuing the film with heartbreaking aura. Who better to listen when Golding’s broken, hurt man of few words confides, “I thought my life was going to be better than it is”? Who better to make him laugh?

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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