...Around (2008)

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"No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude... finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. Learning for instance, to eat when he's hungry and sleep when he's sleepy."
-- Jack Kerouac
(Lonesome Traveler

Although in this particular instance Kerouac was writing about solitude in the wilderness-- in essence it's this same rite of passage that we all go through when moving from adolescence into adulthood and learning to rely on ourselves. While some of the luckier ones have trust funds and nest eggs and allowances that last well throughout their collegiate endeavors, the rest of us have to make a wager on our future by trying to figure out just what we want out of life, how much we're willing to risk financially and physically in deciding whether to enlist or enroll, to go backpacking in Europe or out there on the American road.

Oh, the Places You'll Go! isn't just the name of a beloved Dr. Suess book that's become standard fare for graduation gifts but also a vague promise that there's something waiting out there for each one of us as Doyle Simms (Rob Evans) says early on in writer/director David Spaltro's heartfelt and earnest feature filmmaking debut.

Leaving an unhappily dysfunctional home in Jersey City for film school across the river in New York, Doyle quickly learns that both the mythic power of cinema he experienced in his youth as a way to escape his parents' tears and divorce as well as all of the cliches about the "city that never sleeps" isn't quite as ideal as he'd imagined.

Assured by his professors that his visual arts college is "cutting edge" as he listens to the pretentious and morbid film plots about homeless gay men with H.I.V. from his self-important classmates, Doyle realizes after his first deflating year that not only is the education ridiculously expensive but he isn't exactly sure he really wants to be there in the first place.

In his hesitation, financial aid paperwork gets delayed and although he ultimately returns to the city figuring anything is better than where he was in his constant struggle to find "home" in Jersey, the actuality of his having a home is jeopardized when the loans don't come through.

While most of us would've tucked our tail between our legs and moved home-- the determined, stubborn and incredibly proud Doyle puts his creativity to dangerous use, spreading out his tuition payments over seventeen credit cards (including inventing a few fake businesses to keep the money and plastic coming in) and working thankless jobs to cover the minimum monthly payments.

Bravely renting a cheap locker for belongings he can't carry on his back and roughing it in the evenings as insomnia sets in at Penn and Grand Central Station, collecting cans by night along with fellow homeless book seller Saul (Ron Brice), Doyle leads a "dual life" by day parading as an average film student. Although, of course to the audience and any character who is paying attention, we realize that there's something in his eyes and his confident manner of speech that gives the young man a weariness and maturity about him far beyond his years.

Admirably, in other hands, the film could've easily turned overly melodramatic or even old but with a winningly charismatic performance by Evans and Spaltro's emphasis on the resilience of the human spirit, optimism, and passion, it becomes something very truthful and heartfelt as it continues. Adding to the film's refreshing tenderness which is elevated by Evans as he dances off the sides of walls and always keeps his head up-- one of the lonely New York souls straight out of Kerouac with much more humor and empathy--is the welcome turn by Molly Ryman as Allyson, an aspiring actress who becomes one of Doyle's closest friends, despite an instant romantic chemistry that exists just beneath the surface.

While we ultimately realize that for Doyle to move on, he'll need to revisit his past and face the reasons for his flight and the film struggles a bit whenever he leaves New York for New Jersey, most likely because aside from his best friend Logic (Marcel Torres)--the other characters (especially his mother played by Bernice Mosca) don't generate much sympathy. Despite this, Spaltro never loses his focus and we're incredibly invested in Doyle's plight.

A highly personal film self-financed with a budget of $150,000 ("or 40 credit cards" as Spaltro gamely jokes) and filmed over 21 days in a whirlwind of 190 locations-- while of course, since time was a factor there are a few scenes (mostly the mother and son plot-line) that feel rushed, others are simply extraordinary in their sophistication, beauty, and maturity which goes above and beyond the narcissistic cliched twenty-something "just out of film school" works that have flooded the Do-It-Yourself! or Mumblecore movement.

Polished and impressively written and generating promising buzz on the film festival circuit, Spaltro's emotionally satisfying ...Around boasts a tremendous performance from its leading man who manages to move us with subtle nuances like the way he constantly looks in the mirror alone and says "Hello, Stranger" as if trying to get into the character Doyle needs to play that particular day to the outside world as a young man pretending he has it all together.

Additionally tapping right in to the same need our generation has for genuine tales of coming-of-age in the vein of Zach Braff's unique Garden State as opposed to the American Pie styled fare we're routinely served at the multiplex, the film is also notable for its incredible score by Vita Tanga and an emphasis on local New York indie rock bands such as Black Hollies, The Diggs, Messinian (Download Tracks Here), My Teenage Stride and others which immediately give it a sense of authenticity as well as time and place.

Currently screening on the festival circuit, the talented filmmaker's debut work is scheduled to find its way onto DVD and online (via digital distribution) in the near future. And while I urge you to check it out when ...Around is near you, additionally, it's sure to make you look forward to the next films from the writer/director and his talented cast.