Guerrilla Korner

HOLLYWOOD Outsider's art-bear movie critic, Edgar Allan Balzac, tackles movies from the independent scene. We are talking real indie films, not faux Miramax/Disney "independent" films. You'll have to drag your lazy ass down to your local film-fest to check out these monster flicks. "Four Letter Words" was an official selection at South by Southwest Film Festival 2001; San Antonio Underground 2001; and special jury mention at The New Jersey Film Festival 2001.

Four Letter Words (2001)

Directed by Sean Baker

A nightmare for most college-age males is to show up at a party and find that most of his fellow partygoers are young men just as lonely, angry, desperate, and fucked-up as himself. That's just the scenario presented in director Sean Baker's "Four Letter Words", an unblinking look at a former group of high school buddies who are growing up (term used loosely) and away from the gang in suburban New Jersey (circa 1991). The movie takes place at Art's (Fred Berman) parents' house and the story begins at 3 am on a summer morning, playing out in real time with what's left of the party's bleary stragglers.

Four Letter Words

The tone is set within the first few moments as Florio (David Ari) is puking his guts out in the bathroom with Aleks (Vincent Radwinsky), Nick (Paul Weissman), and Drew (Edward Coyne) cheering him on. All of the amused participants regard the event as part group effort, part spectator's sport. If you're thinking that this is the familiar fake regurgitation scene composed of a mouthful of oatmeal, you are in for a nasty surprise. Also, if you are thinking that this scene is just a gratuitous attempt at shock, you would be wrong, too.

In his pursuit of realism, Sean Baker requested that actor David Ari take a purgative to induce vomiting for the scene. How do I know this? It's one of the great extras on the DVD! Also, Baker shows his own experience with the purgative -- hey, it's unfair to ask an actor to do something that you wouldn't do yourself. Plus, it makes for another great moment for the extras on the DVD!

The realism only begins there. Baker fashioned the story of "Four Letter Words" out of recorded conversations between his friends, and is followed through with the droll dialogue being nailed by a great cast of young actors. They deliver their lines with documentary-like feeling, bringing to life this scenario of former high school friends as they talk about women, their college experiences, and what the future holds (or not) for them during a summer kegger.

Four Letter Words

The film lives and dies by its realism. It's fascinating like a train wreck, and is not the traditional type of plot that can be resolved by putting a nice bow at the end to wrap it all up. None of the characters are going to finish the night any closer to happiness than they started. These are not the type of characters that are given center stage in Hollywood movies. These are not "great guys" and this ain't "Diner". Nonetheless, Baker cares about his chuckle-heads but refuses to romanticize them in any way. They are all floundering in the morass of their lives and they have nothing in the way of ennobling values or goals. Their main preoccupation is how much sex they are having (or not).

A typical character is Jay (Matthew Dawson), an angry little prick who is majoring in foreign studies and boasts of his interest in world politics and culture. He also has a thing for "Oriental girls". At one point he expresses his frustration and disbelief that his "ABC" (American-born Chinese) girlfriend dumped him to pursue English guys because she has a thing for Europeans. He fails to see any irony in the situation, only how stupid she was being, after all, "The English economy sucks!" Jay is a clenched fist of rage and goes off on unexpected tirades. At one point, he snarls at his pot-head buddy, Sam Goldberg (Henry Beylin), "You're such a Jew!" A perfect foil for Jay's dementia is Jordon (Matthew Maher), an easy going, good natured guy with a pronounced speech impediment. Jordon diffuses Jay's anger with humor and continually challenges Jay on his delusional theories.

Four Letter Words

While Jay and Jordon verbally spar, Aleks berates Drew and Neil during a car ride to pick up some cigarettes. Aleks' sexual prowess is well known to his friends. He's a confident, good looking guy who has had sex with 11 different women during the past two semesters of school. In contrast, Drew and Neil are 21 year-old virgins. The cause of Drew's virginity is obvious. He's a Dr. Who T-shirt wearin' geek with an Abe Lincoln beard. On top of the bad fashion choices is a marginal personality. He proudly spouts his thorough knowledge of porn and is eagerly looking forward to seeing his favorite porn-star at a local strip club. Drew tries to convince his buddy, Neil, to go along and "take a peak".

Later, Drew gets on a soap box about the emptiness of American culture, especially Disney films like "The Little Mermaid." Just like Jay, Drew can't see the irony of his sentiments. Neil, on the other hand, is an overly sensitive guy who is terrified of women and is an all around social-phobe. The interesting thing about Neil is that he's not repellent like Drew and could easily be a popular guy. His isolation is self imposed. Aleks sympathetically explains to Neil, "Don't put girls on such a fucking pedestal where you don't see them as real people. I mean, it's easier if you just see them as one of us. You do the same things with them as you do with your friends. You talk about the same things. You do the same things. The only difference is you're trying to get down their pants... at least you can rest on the fact that you're going to get laid before Drew. So, just jerk-off a lot until then."

Four Letter Words

"Four Letter Words" is put together nicely and turns its small budget into an aesthetic strength. Since getting lots of coverage of long-ass conversations was not possible, Baker effectively employs jump cuts to keep the best parts of the performance and content while getting rid of the fat. The jump cuts aren't obtrusive and aren't treated as a special effect which is just the right way to handle it. The movie was shot on 35mm film and looks good with nice choices of camera moves and compositions. A bigger budget would have allowed for more lights which would have made for a prettier picture but this would have taken away from the documentary feel of the movie as a whole and weakened the over-all effect. "Four Letter Words" is not for everyone, but if you're a fan of real independent films, and like the John Cassavettes or John Sayles style of ensemble storytelling and realism, this is a must see. It was an official selection at South by Southwest Film Festival 2001; San Antonio Underground 2001; and special jury mention at The New Jersey Film Festival 2001. -- Rating: $9.50

Edgar Allan Balzac -- copyright 2003 Hollywood Outsider

For more information or to buy the DVD go to the Little Films home page:

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