Week 9 — Delaware
There’s a joke from this movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch which came out about 15 years ago. It’s from that movie about two guys who shoot a weekly public access television show from their parent’s basement in Aurora, Illinois. If you’ve seen the movie — and, really, who hasn’t? — I think you know where I’m going with this. Anyway, the two guys (Wade and Gary, I think it was?) are filming this bit in front of a blue screen or a green screen. They’re projecting images from different states onto the backdrop and riffing on each one. Like, they’d get to Texas and be like “Yee haw! I’m in Texas! Let’s go rope some cows.” So, after a few states Delaware comes up and… fuck. I’m not going to explain the joke it if you haven’t seen it. It’s a joke most Delawarians get sick of hearing. In fact, I’ll probably get stoned for bringing it up, but that’s kind of how I felt when I got to Delaware in this little road trip because — let’s face it — of all 50 states, it’s possible that Delaware (my current home) is the least represented on film. It’s tiny. It’s forgettable. To most, it’s a brief inconvenience when traveling from New York to the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area.
My choices seemed limited at first to doing Fight Club — which if you pay close enough attention you’ll realize is set in the city of Wilmington, however, was not actually shot in Wilmington. The other possibility would be to do something like Dead Poet’s Society, which was shot in Delaware but supposed to take place elsewhere.
In the end, what it came down to was I would be forced to do some sort of cop out. That is, until I learned there was a movie filmed and shot in Delaware. It’s not a “classic” in any sense of the term. Chances are, you’ve probably never heard of it. It never played at any film festivals. It is available through Netflix, however, so it’s not unheard of. Also, the film’s director and writer Jeremy O’Keefe was kind enough to take the time to talk to me on the phone last week — meanwhile, Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Coppola won’t return my phone calls. Bastards. So without further ado, 50 Movies for 50 States presents the 2008 coming-of-age drama — filmed and set in Wilmington, Delaware — Wrestling.
I got a hold of O’Keefe through the Wrestling Web site last Tuesday. Within minutes of sending him an email explaining who I was and what I was planning to do, he responded through his Blackberry that he would be happy to talk to me and that he would give me a call on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Since writing and directing Wrestling, O’Keefe explained that he has moved out to Los Angeles in hopes of continuing a career in film. He seems to be doing quite well and is currently in pre-production on his second film, the title of which escapes me at the moment since I’ve lost all my notes from our phone conversation. No worries. I’m a professional with an impeccable memory. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Wrestling is described on its official Web site as a cross between Kids and Can’t Hardly Wait. I think that’s a pretty fair statement. Its poster describes it as Cassavetes by way of Dawson’s Creek, which is an even more accurate statement. (I watched a little of John Cassavetes, whose films I was unfamiliar with, in preparation for this review. For those interested, four of his films are available to watch instantly on Netflix.) Wrestling‘s tagline, according to the poster pictured above, is “Can you ever get it back?”, which could be a set up for a really cheap joke: What does the “it” represent? One’s virginity? The 80 minutes of my day I set aside to watch Wrestling? All joking aside, “it” probably refers to the feeling of being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, that special time when every obstacle or problem was an end-of-the-world scenario and a chance to go Emo — like you’re one of the characters from, say … The Ice Storm. (Come to think of it, the characters in this movie would get along well with the teenagers from The Ice Storm.) Wrestling attempts to capture that brief moment in the life of its auteur. Can he ever get it back?
The locations in Wrestling are all places where O’Keefe has spent his life growing up. The characters in Wrestling are middle to upper class, the types of people O’Keefe grew up around. They are in their late teens and primarily white. With nary a parent in sight, they roam the suburbs — not unlike the kids of Over the Edge — drinking, smoking and sleeping around. They are more Dawson’s Creek than Kids, as it does not seem as though boredom or escape is what drives the characters but more a desire to explore and experiment. O’Keefe told me the characters are based on teen movie archetypes like the jock, the rich girl and the token black guy. It was his way of paying tribute to the teen movies he grew up with. At the same time, rather than simply create an homage, O’Keefe wanted to show that these types of characters can be made multidimensional. Did he succeed? That’s debatable.
Wrestling focuses on a few main characters, Jake (played by Mark Welling), Carrie (played by Lauren Schneider) and Ali (played by Melissa Claire Egan). Jake and Ali are childhood friends. Carrie is a cute blond grieving over a dead boyfriend who finds a common bond with Jake, whose mother is also dead. Jake and Carrie begin a romance. That’s about it in terms of plot. Wrestling is very much a slice-of-life type of film, not one that can rely on an intriguing storyline to keep you hooked. Of course there are the inevitable complications of their relationship — the reluctance of Carrie to fall in love again out of fear she might suffer another loss, the “friends” of Carrie’s who believe Jake is spitting on the grave of Carrie’s ex-boyfriend by coercing Carrie back into the dating pool so soon. Then there’s Jake’s dad, played by Jeff Conaway (Taxi, Grease). Conaway was last seen falling apart as a result of substance abuse on television’s Celebrity Rehab. He’s a surprisingly good fit in Wrestling, which O’Keefe said was prior to his addictions becoming unmanageable. O’Keefe actually said that Conaway was professional — his script was marked with notes and Conaway talked about relating some of the emotions from a recent split from his wife to his character’s emotions about his dead wife. Somehow, knowing there’s a real professional actor within Conaway makes his appearances on Celebrity Rehab even sadder.
Ultimately, Wrestling‘s success depends almost solely on whether you’re going to be interested in the characters. Conaway’s character I found to be very intriguing and I would have liked to have seen more of him. For better or for worse, this is not the case. Mostly to keep Wrestling down to a decent running time, O’Keefe said a number of scenes had to be cut — some involving Conaway. What remains as the focus of the film are the three main characters, who do a fairly decent job carrying the film. Of the three — all of whom O’Keefe said he personally cast — only one could be considered a “professional” actor. That’s Egan, who has gone on to a successful career in daytime soaps and was recently nominated for a daytime Emmy for her work on All My Children. Welling, meanwhile, is the younger brother of Smallville‘s Tom Welling. Schneider has been in a few other independent productions but has yet to catch a break. Frankly, I was underwhelmed with both Egan and Welling. Given their credentials, I was expecting more. Schneider, on the other hand, stole the show.
I liked O’Keefe’s direction. He films Wrestling in a documentary-like cinema verite style, hence the Cassavetes comparison, occasionally pulling out a trick or two such as the use of a split-screen. These technical tricks work in some cases but not in others. The cinematography is nice — even overcoming the limitations of being shot digitally. I must confess it’s a pretty movie to look at.
The big question is, is it something you would want to watch? For me, the answer came easy. As a resident of Wilmington, I enjoyed watching the movie and trying to pick out all the different locations in my city. For others, the location won’t matter much to them. In fact, they might even forget that it takes place in Delaware if it weren’t for the fact that Jake spends much in the movie wearing Delaware-themed t-shirts. There’s also a few shots in the beginning of the sign you see when you’re entering Delaware (“Small Wonder”) and Wilmington (“A Place to be Somebody”) You might not care about the characters’ problems. You might think to yourself, “get over it.” O’Keefe realizes this. He mentioned to me on the phone that, perhaps if his movie had been about gays or minorities and not just middle-class white kids, maybe it would have been noticed more by festival organizers and made it into more film fests. “Maybe when I’m finished with my second film and it finds an audience, maybe people will go back and watch Wrestling and it will find an audience,” O’Keefe told me.
I can’t in all honestly recommend Wrestling. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not a good one — no … it’s not a great one. If you have seen every movie by John Cassavettes, every movie by the Duplass brothers, every movie by Joe Swanberg, Kids, Gummo — if you’ve seen all those, maybe give Wrestling a spin.
O’Keefe is a director to watch in the future. He took $10,000 and made a movie. He made the movie he wanted to make. He told the story he wanted to tell. That’s no small feat. Now O’Keefe is being offered more money to make another movie. Maybe it’ll be better. I’m sure it’ll be better. O’Keefe went into Wrestling with good intentions and, while good intentions aren’t enough to make a good movie, you can learn skills. What you can’t learn is drive and passion, of which O’Keefe has plenty.