For an independent film, getting onto screens can be an arduous process. Be it finding a distributor or the always tense time one finds when submitting a film into a festival, an indie filmmaker’s sleep schedule is always up in the air. However, there may not be a single more laid back and welcoming environment to show one’s feature than at the Waterfront Film Festival.
This year’s festival, set in the lakeside village of Saugatuck, Michigan, is now underway, and among the great lineup of films showing this year (including a personal favorite Sophia Takal’s Green) one of the most buzzed about and most anticipated showings was the SXSW darling, Clay Liford’s Wuss. And luckily, at least for the most part, the film lives up to the hype.
First debuting last year during SXSW,Wuss comes to us from the aforementioned Clay Liford, and follows the story of a looked down upon high school substitute teacher who, after an accident happens involving an English II teacher, is thrust onto the hot seat of running his own class, and everything that comes with it. Living at home with his mother and evil sister, and smoking weed with his D&D loving best buddies, our lead is accosted by a group of students, only to find out that there are far deeper things at work here, and he is directly in the middle of it.
A darkly comedic laugher, Wuss is strongest in the moments of true heart that Liford is able to the film. Nate Rubin stars here, and puts in a wonderfully dense performance. While his lot in life isn’t much to look at, he not only knows this fact, but has a deeply real sense of sarcasm about everything. Not afraid to let his titular wuss side shine, Rubin is able to take what, in any other film, would be simply a one note whipping boy, and give something of a multi-layered performance here.
He has some help, as first time actress Alicia Anthony absolutely steals the show here as the mysterious Maddie. She is introduced to the audience truly through long expression shots during our first encounter with Mitch after he is attacked, and in these moments, we learn so much about the character, that it’s a performance that is to reckoned with. However, as we learn more and more about the burgeoning teenager, she is also fleshed out, culminating in a one two punch with her and Rubin, that may be one of the best on screen duos of the year.
Liford is strong as a visual artist, crafting a gorgeous looking film here, featuring some true directorial flourishes (be it a time spanning montage near the film’s conclusion, or a dream-like sequence that caps the film), Liford proves that while he can craft a story, it’s a visual medium that he loves playing in. The screenplay, also penned by the director, is admittedly schizophrenic tonally, trying to have its comedic cake, and dramatically eat it as well.
At times a drama about a teacher trying to come to terms with a generation that has gone to proverbial Hell, the film also has moments of Office Space-like workplace humor, and Pineapple Express-esque nerd-fused stoner comedy, all making it a far more incongruent picture emotionally.
Thematically, the film concludes in an oddly ambiguous way, or at least for those looking deeply into the final sequence including a dream-like sequence that left the audience viewing the film during the festival rather talkative. Also a film featuring a deeply melancholy mood of an age gone by without much pomp, circumstance, or growth in our characters (they are still as vulgar and childish as ever), this is not a festival film that you’ll soon be forgetting. Liford is definitely a name to keep an eye on.