Whether it's because we crave the immediate connection we can have with someone else based on a shared experience or we need the affirmation that our own beliefs are something closer to fact than opinion is open for debate but for whatever reason, we tend to believe what we can see.
And just like the street corner hustlers urging us to follow the card in a quick shell game or the magicians who rely on the art of the misdirect in order to successfully bend us to their will, filmmakers have been experimenting with new ways for people to be betrayed by their senses since the birth of cinema.
Eager to test the medium out on an enthralled public – even before shots were edited together to create the most rudimentary of narratives, viewers were so willing to believe what it was that they were seeing on the soundless black-and-white screen that they fled their seats to avoid getting swept away by the sea – certain that the ocean waves appearing right before their eyes were real.
Of course, it wasn't until the creation of the montage (which graduated from its humble beginnings chronicling a hungry man's dinner to Sergei Eisenstein's influential Battleship Potemkin "Odessa Steps" sequence) that directors were finally able to change the literal, figurative, and/or metaphorical meaning of a scene to resemble something closer to a misdirect-fueled confidence trick on par with hustlers or magicians.
Once they had this new ace up their sleeve, filmmakers began using it to rewrite their films in the editing room, paying homage to the twists, tools, turns, and techniques that had thrilled the literary world for centuries such as Canterbury Tales author Chaucer's unreliable narrator. And much like the black-and-white ocean waves and Eisenstein's steps, they swept viewers up before leaving us all hopelessly under their spell.
A remarkably effective tactic when executed deftly, unreliable narrator movies have practically developed into their own subgenre – spining off from all the major film types.
Yet from The Usual Suspects to Fight Club and The Sixth Sense to Memento and Mulholland Drive, Film Noir's modern day next-of-kin equivalent Neo-Noirs and/or existential thrillers have been the most successful and influential of the lot.
Although it might be tempting to lump any film with a surprise ending into the category of unreliable narrator, one of the most important factors for making these films work is ensuring that the final twist was set in motion throughout the entire movie – encouraging viewers to want to immediately go back to the beginning to watch the film again in order to better appreciate the construction of the house of cards that we’d been fooled into believing was made out of brick.
Knowing when to bluff and when to let audiences sneak a peek at the wild cards in your unreliable narrator's hand makes setting up these thrillers (both on the page and later in the cutting room) incredibly difficult for veteran helmers, let alone relative newcomers.
And that makes the feat achieved by those responsible for the award-winning independent film festival favorite Lonely Boy that much more impressive.
A brilliant one-two-three punch for Alev Aydin who wrote, starred in, and produced this pressure cooker of a passion project, the audacious Lonely Boy blends a number of genres together into its own thrillingly dramatic hybrid which has us questioning what we see and believe right along with our protagonist.
Interrupting the rhythm of its montages with unexpected jump cuts as well as surprising shifts in point-of-view early on that are used to establish character, Lonely Boy is at its best when it holds us at arm's length, keeping us off balance much like its main character would as we rely on context clues to better understand just what exactly is going on.
An unreliable narrator saga of epic proportions (ever-complicated by the protagonist's battle with uncontrolled Schizophrenia), Lonely Boy is centered on Aydin's titular lonely boy Franky who finds himself at an emotional crossroads within the first ten minutes of the start of the movie.
While it does hit a few dissonant notes – mainly when it abandons its core plotline and point-of-view to instead follow those of secondary characters in order to bring us up to speed with exposition filled dialogue – again and again, Lonely Boy rights itself from heading too far in the wrong direction.
Admirable in its aims and ambitions, although the film's romantic subplot suffers in comparison to the rest of the movie, one of the most intriguing things about director Dale Fabrigar's Lonely Boy is that – save for a few obvious exceptions – we're never sure whether what we're seeing is real or imagined.
Fostering empathy while simultaneously bringing out the filmic detective in most of us – after catching a stranger call Aydin's lead by his character's name, I found myself rewinding the film.
Going past the start of the scene to revisit the first forty-five minutes once again, Lonely Boy made me eager to test out a few theories I had as well as see what else I might've missed (or only thought I did) along the way.
While unfortunately again the movie's romantic angle seemed slightly contrived particularly when giving it a closer look, Boy is vastly more compelling when it focuses on the power struggle that had long been simmering between Franky and his well-meaning older sister (played by the ever-talented Paul Thomas Anderson scene stealer Melora Walters).
And this is especially evident when the filmmakers rely on the two to share a scene instead of abandoning the lonely boy in order to follow Walters' similarly lonely girl, driven world-weary by a bad twist of fate in scenes that feel stylistically and narratively out of place without Franky there.
Confidently trusting in the strength of its cast, crew and creative throughline, Lonely Boy pays only the slightest of homage to some of the aforementioned unreliable narrator movies.
Thematically reminiscent of Memento during a devastating revelation that occurs in the final act of both works, whereas Christopher Nolan opted for a more visceral and overtly violent confrontation during the penultimate sequence of his international crossover hit, Lonely Boy packs an emotional punch that is sure to linger long after viewers press eject.
Anchored by the power of Aydin's performance, which came from a very personal place in a labor of love effort inspired by his mother's battle with brain cancer, viewers gravitated to the immediate human connection they felt for Lonely Boy on the festival circuit.
A film that questions if we can believe what we see, Lonely Boy (which is now available to be streamed on Hulu), relies on the classic building blocks of cinema to give us something that has to be seen to be believed via a work that's better understood the more it's shared.
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