Demolition derbies, roller rinks, summer camp, turtles, dilapidated short buses; it’s either some acid-mutated childhood flashback or another independent film about small-town America. Writer/director Todd Rohal’s first feature, The Guatemalan Handshake, is a playful romp through the ups and downs (but mostly downs) of the inhabitants in a fictional Pennsylvania burg. After a power outage caused by a nuclear-plant malfunction, Donald Turnupseed (Bill Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy), a town nobody, disappears, leaving his pregnant girlfriend, his witless father (and his demolition-derby-loving friends), and a host of others to muddle through their own problems. Rife with reoccurring, unique props doubling as characters (like a 1970s electric car, a fried poodle and many plastic trophies), the film shows us the surreal behavior of the entire town, while we slowly decipher the reasons for Donald’s disappearance.
Donald’s self-proclaimed best friend, a ten-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood), delivers the film’s opening lines: “In a demolition derby, the last car moving is the winner; sometimes the cars are so beat up, they can barely move, but they’re still the winners. I like that. There are three things Donald says he’d like to see before he dies: a lake of chocolate, a turtle the size of a horse, and a trophy with his name on it.” Rarely does a film so well define itself in its opening, for better or for worse. In this paragraph, The Guatemalan Handshake, sets its tone quickly and incontrovertibly and tells us exactly what to expect.
We know it’s about the trials that life throws at you, and what winning can mean, or not mean. We know it uses unconventional images to symbolically illuminate its themes. And thanks to the voiceover’s second half, we also know this is a film made by hipsters. Not to be pejorative and not that those wishes aren’t believable, but the undeniably quirkiness of the first two (the chocolate lake and the huge turtle), combined with the sadness of the last (the unquenchable hope for a trophy) gives the distinct aroma of fashionably self-degrading. This speech also sets up the film’s most repeated image: turtles.
Throughout the movie, Donald’s fascination with turtles illustrates his reclusive nature. Clearly, before Donald dies, he might also like to see a turtle shell on his back. After this telling opening scene, the stage is set, and the power goes out.
Rohal uses this power outage as a rather literal symbol for his characters’ loss of power in their own lives: Sadie (Sheila Scullin), Donald’s fertilized lady friend, can’t seem to figure out her derby-champ father; “Stool”, the town’s less sympathetic, less funny Napoleon Dynamite, can’t seem to get a date and keeps taking off his shirt; and Ellie Firecracker, the town nut, can’t understand why her obituary is in the paper. By far the most intriguing portrayal is of Mr. Turnupseed, Donald’s father. He and his unhealthy obsession with his electric commuter car are painted in broad strokes by Ken Byrnes and Mr. Turnupseed becomes the film’s sympathetic voice of the absurd, acting as a belay for the less-grounded characters. With all these portraits, framed by a few scant plot points, Rohal’s circuitous storytelling weaves it all together and tries to give meaning to the bizarre events of the town.
The Guatemalan Handshake is ambitious and Rohal’s sketches of podunk American life, combined with his use of non-actors, gives the film a certain flair. But with the recent rise of these Wes Anderson-style eccentric ensembles, and the large-scale success of films like Napoleon Dynamite and even Juno, defining small-town life through elliptical character studies and trendy folk (or anti-folk) music has become starkly less original. Additionally, scripting believably absurd characters is difficult and the lines are sometimes lacking. Turkeylegs acts much like a regular ten-year-old – making herself a dinner of chocolate bunnies and whipped cream – but in a later scene remarks: “This place smells like dead fish and sauerkraut…it smells like I’m the only person in the world; like I’m seasick standing up.” This is not the voice of a little girl, just a 30-something with an élan for the idiosyncratic. Balancing the odd and the real is a tight-rope walk on which first-timer Rohal sometimes stumbles.
And though his intent is there, the film sometimes loses itself in a labyrinth of classic hipster kitsch: fake moustaches, Polaroid pictures, out-of-date analog technology, and quasi-condescending interpretations of small-town America. Even the Moldy Peaches duet in the middle of the movie doesn’t stand out positively, it just appears another jagged obstruction from the film’s ideas. There’s a lot revere in here, but also to rebuff.
This film is packaged beautifully with a whole disc full of extras. Tons of documentaries on the making of the film, fun stories from the festival circuit, and short films created by the cast and crew (including a great faux-documentary by the second unit director, and an inspiring short from young Katy Haywood). Tack those features onto the now-standard commentary tracks and an Ola Podrida video directed by Rohal, and you’ve got a well-crafted DVD shown a great deal of love and care.
The Guatemalan Handshake, though flawed, certainly puts Rohal on my radar for the future. But the DVD is filled to the brim, and I believe he’ll soon find the original voice to accompany his unique ideas of storytelling.