By Elias Savada.
A semi-creepy opening sequence for director-writer Benjamin Meyer’s micro-budget feature directorial debut Fools had me wondering whether stalking can be an acceptable dating platform. Two people exchange glances and touch hands on a passenger pole aboard a Chicago El train. He moves his grasp higher. Her hand follows. When she exits a station, he follows. No words are said between them, just looks exchanged. Rinse, reverse, repeat.
You’ll eventually learn she is Susan, about to flee an angry (and pregnant) roommate. He’s Sam, a reluctant mama’s boy recently fired from an insurance job, one of many his mom (Janet Ulrich Brooks) set up for him with one of her numerous boyfriends, current or way past. So far, not the way you would expect a romantic adventure to start. Not your usual love-at-first-sight story. Then came the line “I have a really sensitive gag reflex,” which Susan offers to an oafish guy trying to kanoodle her affections. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny (and not meant to be, I expect), but the low-key levity starts to emerge in the film. There’s a dour, bittersweet romantic dramedy afoot and two lonely souls awash in the Windy City.
This couple-to-be (even before they know it) are pretenders to their own thrones of disillusionment and family discontent. Liars and fantasists all, maybe in a playful way, maybe not. Sam, who can’t seem to find his vocational bearings, actually discovers he likes a new job working for a senior citizen’s assistance company called Goldenpal, delivering groceries, handling plumbing issues, and hoping for smiles as tips. Sure, it’s a subplot to show he can care for someone, while hoping to learn more about his fatherless upbringing. His geriatric acquaintances include Mr. Hill (Maury Cooper), a shaky shut-in who believes Sam is his son. Let the catharsis begin.
Earlier Sam found himself helping a homeless stranger. It’s Susan, or course, waiting near his doorstep one night. At this point they haven’t had a word between them. Naturally in this romantic fantasy, Susan moves in. The tall tales usher forth in rapidly escalating conversations. Call it awkward cute, with a lonely hearts piano score.
In the scenes where Sam and Susan trade stories, their histories change from minute to minute. At one point she insists she’s a Hungarian princess, who sleeps naked (one is true). Their observations of each other are borderline confrontational, but apologies or distractions seem to allay any threat of fully disrupting their increasingly strange relationship.
There’s a running gag about a cigarette-smoking mime. And Sam only seems able to play his guitar disguised as pseudonymous musicians who perform “songs” centering on his new roommate’s first name (only later do we learn her surname).
After only a week of “dating,” these self-conscious souls find themselves dining at Sam’s mother place, a demanding occurrence, especially as the “lies” are unearthed. Back home, where the duo are still using the old It Happened One Night (1934) sleeping arrangement (a blanket being replaced by a shower curtain), revelations and accusations fly about. The wacky twosome seemingly are undone until one strange Thanksgiving gathering. You can sense the dysfunction as poor Susan’s eyes widen as if caught in a big lie’s headlights.
Fools feels like an unhinged romantic comedy that forgot to take its meds. It’s rough and raw, with comedy of a regretful-after-sex variety. Lots of emotional eggshells for the two fragile souls to be fearful of breaking.
Sam is played, in a Mark (or brother Jay) Duplass brother kind of way, by Michael Szeles, while his companion in unlikely romance is portrayed by Mary Cross (in real life they are husband-wife). Both are theatrically trained, but manage to carry their film roles well in a film with such a loosely developed storyline. For director Meyer and his stars-friends (Szeles starred in his 2000 short Georgie Porgie with Fools’ other producer, Dana Scott, then known as Dana Trecker). He is certainly taking a leap of faith with such an unusual debut feature.
Fools captured the Audience Award at last year’s L.A.-based Dances With Films festival. It will be playing at the DC Independent Film Festival on Sunday, March 13th (click here for info), with both stars, the director and producer Beth Schachter (who is married to director Meyer) scheduled to attend and offer what will no doubt be an enlightening Q and A.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.