I didn’t know we could do that.
Whether you’re a proponent of nature over nurture or vice versa, you cannot deny the impact both have on our lives regardless of the other. Yes we all have the potential to be President of the United States on paper, but we don’t all have the tools at our disposal to turn such blanket statements of opportunity into reality. Oftentimes we don’t even realize this fact because our identities are forged by those tools we do have. For example: growing up in a blue-collar mining town teaches hard work and sacrifice. The previous generation provides a template for what can be accomplished and improved upon by the next. Then things happen. People die and responsibilities shift. Rather than prove inspirations, those able to “get out” are merely lucky.
What does that luck entail, though? Is it a helping hand, early start, or the drive to persevere against long odds? Sure. But there’s also another form more akin to the lottery: escape. That’s the one Joseph Matarrese‘s film Searching for Fortune highlights by dropping a bombshell on its lead character’s head. Michael Denton Jr. (screenwriter Brian Smolensky) might not have the best life, but he lives it to the fullest. It may deal in extremes where alcohol and women are concerned, but he watches out for the single father who raised him (John Heard‘s Denton Sr.) and the best friends and fellow co-workers he considers part of his family. Mike can be depended upon to protect you with his life. He excels despite his objectively tough circumstances.
And then he discovers this existence forged from darkness and struggle could have been someone else’s to endure. A woman (Christina Moore‘s Emily) arrives out of nowhere with word that the brother he never knew he had was recently deceased. Her motivations for finding Mike are unorthodox, but Smolensky uses them to position her as a window at what could have been. While he was kept to experience the death of his mother at age five, live in the rough economical straits his father had at his disposal, and then more or less become him in the aftermath, Dan Larson was given up and adopted by a family of means. While Mike learned how to survive on the ground, Dan became a war hero flying through the sky.
The film becomes an interesting character study born from this news because Mike’s complex reaction isn’t about merely learning who this person was. This type of plot usually pushes people into a mode of discovery—to know this man they can now never know. But rather than deal in the external, Smolensky decides to venture inside. Mike is going to take a journey of discovery towards an unknown figure, but it’s not his brother. The man he will struggle to reconcile and accept is the man he might have been if things turned out different. This could mean who he might have been with Dan’s adoptive parents or more simply and tragically the person he didn’t believe anyone like him could become. It’s a punch to the gut.
Suddenly the man with a smile and easy-going attitude amongst a band of misfits is the sullen one in the corner desperately trying to figure out where he went wrong. And when Emily tells him how much he reminds her of her late husband, the pain only increases. He could have been happily married in the city with a big house and yet he’s in a trailer that looks as though a tornado blew through two years previously without anyone thinking to clean up. What’s worse is that anytime you think about those types of what-ifs, you are unwittingly saying that which you do have isn’t enough. So Mike only gets angrier, lashing out at those he loves because of some fantasy populated by strangers he’ll never meet.
He’s thirty years old and going through what most experience during college: that fork in the road of limitless possibilities. Whereas you are in the driver’s seat as a co-ed working towards graduation, however, Mike is already locked onto the only path he thought was available. All those decisions he willingly made with eyes open are being second-guessed in hindsight. And maybe he’s correct to do so. Maybe he should use this as a catalyst to better himself and escape. There’s a little bit of Good Will Hunting in this regard to what he’s going through. The difference is that changing course is no longer a matter of cementing one path instead of another. He’d have to dismantle every part of himself and rebuild it from scratch.
This realization is what defines Searching for Fortune. It’s a low budget production with obvious limitations, but Smolensky and Matarrese do the best with what they have. They take care to show who Mike is in comparison to those around him because that person is crucial whether or not he sees it. And when you really look at Emily’s request, you see his place in her life isn’t. He’s a backup. She therefore needs him; he doesn’t need her. That’s a lesson he must learn the hard way. That’s the reality he must acknowledge above delusions of an imaginary alternate past. Yes it hurts to admit where he went wrong, but there was always a choice whether or not he was fully aware of the options.
There are a couple really nice examples of this introspection. One is opposite the great Heard as Mike’s father and the other with his best friend Nick (Tom Costello). These are the two men who can have the hard conversations with this lost soul. They’re the ones who know what he went through and how he excelled. We realize in these instances that shame and regret are real. They can destroy you if you’re not careful and they might do exactly that before the credits roll. But there comes a point in all our lives when the path we’ve chosen reinforces itself as the one we truly desired. Yes, things can be better. Yes, things can be easier. But those advantages always come at a cost.
 Brian Smolensky and Christina Moore in Searching for Fortune. Photo Courtesy of Distant Thunder Films.
 John Heard and Brian Smolensky in Searching for Fortune. Photo Courtesy of Distant Thunder Films.
 Brian Smolensky in Searching for Fortune. Photo Courtesy of Distant Thunder Films.