Starting a spry indie summer comedy with a depressed man lighting his hand on fire is a bold choice for a punk performance artist trying to take her experimental aesthetic to the mainstream with her first feature film. Miranda July's goal is not to create the feel-good love story of the summer, however, or to slowly march into a narrative by the usual mundane means of introducing characters and setting up a scenario.
She immediately grabs the audience's attention by jumping right into the deep end of her character's psyche. In this case, it's a department store shoe salesman who briefly turns to self-destruction to block out the reality of separating from his wife. It's a chilling moment, to be sure, when Richard Swersey starts to flame, but actor John Hawkes plays the pain mostly as wonderment, as if he were a small child trying out something he doesn't know is dangerous.
That's pretty much director July's whole take on life and love, whether she's expressing it through adults responding in curiosity and glee to the everyday happenings of the world or showing actual children testing the limits of their reality. Her film is infused with an exuberance that bubbles through every scene and makes her observations about human nature entirely charming. Nothing much happens to the characters she introduces, despite the engulfing opening, but they resonate like Richard Linklater's swirl of people in Slacker. Her journey is worth following even if it leads down a cul-de-sac.
July's own character in the film, performance artist Christine Jesperson, takes the lead in this approach. She's a pixie-like waif, with a mop of curly hair and a pale face, who looks as if one cruel word would crush her. We never get to find out that much about her, except to get the sense that she's extremely lonely and yearns for attention for her work, even though she just smiles through her day. We see one piece of her art in a hilarious send-up of the experimental art world as she tries to court a museum curator into including her video in a new exhibit, and that's enough to get a sense of her buoyant aesthetic.
We get the best portrait of her as she expresses her crush on Richard at the mall. She comes to buy shoes to get his attention, and they end up taking a walk. In a nod to the vapid "instamacy" of today's relationships, they play out the flirting, dating and breaking up of a whole relationship down one long stretch of sidewalk. By the time Richard gets to his car, she's become that wacko stalker ex-girlfriend he can't shake.
These two are really only a sidelight to the stories of the children in the film. Richard has two sons who are July's real focus. The teenage boy, Peter (Miles Thomson) looks like a socially inept nerd, but he's actually in the midst of a quite advanced sexual awakening. He's carrying on a racy Internet sex chat with a woman, and he gets enticed by two neighborhood girls who want to try out their moves on him.
Younger brother Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) picks up on that chat and infuses it with his seven-year-old's imagination, not conscious of how his words are coming across to the adult on the other end. July carefully scripts his Web encounters so that they never go over the edge of disturbing, but instead end up poignant.
The whole effect is magnificent, which has already been noted by the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won a special award for "originality of vision," and by the Cannes Film Festival, which gave July an award for best first film. But while many top indie newcomers are hailed for being talents to watch for in the future '- when they presumably will make more accessible films, like say, Brian Singer directing X-Men or Linklater himself tackling this summer's Bad News Bears '- July is worth paying attention to right now.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you long for the director's next film
Stars: Miranda July, John Hawkes
Director/screenwriter: Miranda July
Producer: Holly Becker
Release date: June 17, 2005 in New York, later nationwide
Distributor: IFC Films