“Nothing, buddy. You keep on … sulking.”
When a feature length debut bows at only 76-minutes you think two things. One: it barely contains a short film worth of content and has been pumped full of fat. Or Two: it’s a shallow piece that goes nowhere and inevitably feels incomplete. It’s a horrible thing that these became the only two options I could see in front of me when sitting down to Chris Lowell‘s (Piz for all you “Veronica Mars” fans) Beside Still Waters. I was actually excited to check it out, so there should have been a modicum of optimism. But there I was waiting for it to fall apart before it even began. Credit to Chris and co-writer Mohit Narang, however, because they’ve measured this thing to lean perfection and as a result crafted an affecting dramedy worthy of our time.
I’ve already seen a release this year appealing to The Big Chill lovers and This is Where I Leave You‘s use of siblings with different mindsets coming together to remember rather than grieve was effective. While the content was similar, though, that catharsis itself wasn’t what made The Big Chill so resonate. No, it was how those disparate people didn’t have to reunite at all. With family there’s an unwritten obligation to show up when one of your clan passes. And if you don’t you’ll be hounded until death for the transgression. Things are different with friends—especially if you’ve been apart for a while. You could simply stay severed and live your life without any consequences. So when a group does rejoin in mourning (or perhaps the distraction from it), their bond proves stronger than blood.
Beside Still Waters gives us exactly that: the romantic clichés of old flames rekindling, guilt manifesting where love could suffice, and a heavy drinking bender transporting friends back to an era left long behind them. All this surrounds Daniel (Ryan Eggold) as he says goodbye to his parents’ lake house now that the bank has foreclosed due to their recent death. He’s invited everyone back for one last hurrah, refusing to acknowledge the reality that his entire concept of family has been erased. He deludes himself into believing his organizing this weekend was for them when it’s truthfully about selfish gain to prove how people who love him do still exist. And since none of them showed up to the funeral, it’s sort of a necessary maneuver to ensure his isolation hasn’t officially been set in stone.
So in come Tom (Beck Bennett) the recently fired manchild; James (Brett Dalton) the pretty boy sell-out actor; Charley (Jessy Hodges) the free spirit; Abby (Erin Darke) the wet blanket; and her husband Martin (Will Brill) the well-meaning doormat. They attempt to stow their own baggage away so they can be there for Daniel—a sense of duty directly influenced by their aforementioned guilt—and almost appear able to get behind the fun until their final guest arrives. Probably invited in a moment of weakness, the face that appears is Daniel’s ex-girlfriend Olivia (Britt Lower). Her entrance finally brings a genuine, unfiltered smile to his face before her uttering the word “we” when describing her journey causes it to falter. Enter new fiancé Henry (Reid Scott), looks of disbelief, and the bottle opener in their host’s hands.
What ensues is both enjoyably comical and appropriately authentic. Pacts are made, fidelity is questioned, and secrets are exposed until everyone is rendered naked emotionally (and physically courtesy of a light night drunken skinny dip). Things get intense, confused, and real as obviously destructive pairings match surprising ones. But nothing anyone does is ever just for effect—each action is crucial to the progression of the plot and there’s never a lingering moment of Lowell unnecessarily smacking us upside the head to see it. Reactions are subtle such as a single tear rolling down a cheek as an argument heats up in the background and lies revealed without fanfare so their consequences can unfold naturally. Rather than be about delivering the “Oh my god” moments, Beside Still Waters concerns everyone’s reactions to them.
Emotions run high and yet it never devolves into melodrama. Lowell actually does some intriguing things visually too with quick collage cuts of memories via old snapshots to make sure we know much of what happens is in response to feelings going way beyond the present. It’s a gorgeous maneuver that continues on from a rousing opening title sequence (I only wish the film’s name didn’t shrink and distract me from the cool effect of scratchy images shifting to the music), pushing Daniel to the brink of explosion after trying so hard to avoid the subject of his parents completely. His friends being there make this impossible, though, because his folks were also a part of their lives. So while his whining may be excessive, it’s deserved. It’s time for them to step up and force him open.
This may take longer than it should, but they eventually realize they’ve come for pleasure and not necessity. There are more than a few bumps along the way, but bumps are hardly life-threatening for friends who’ve gone through as much as them. Tempers flare, songs are sung, nefarious plots against the “new guy” are hatched, and everyone’s regretting something by Sunday. The comparisons to The Big Chill are plenty—and I’m going to assume intentional—and in the end that’s a great template to utilize. And like it, all those regrets soon vanish because at this point in life they’ve learned to move on. At a certain point nothing you can say or admit will affect friendship because that bond has become sacred. It may take tragedy to find time, but that’s exactly when it matters most.