[16 November 2009]
In some quarters, Lynn Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance has been described/received as another entry into two modern, uneven subgenres that have become worn-out descriptors. At the risk of perpetuating their lazy usage, I will not name these subgenres here. Curious readers might, however, want to investigate coverage of films directed by the Duplass Brothers and Judd Apatow (among others) in order to find articles littered with reference to these types.
The primary reason not to saddle My Effortless Brilliance with such classification is that to do so would constrict a film that goes much deeper than any narrow contemporary trend in its quality of production, energetically improvised performances, and collaborative storytelling.
With a cast and crew totaling eight people, a budget of “a few thousand dollars”, and a commitment to “performance-centered production”, Shelton’s film is a positive outgrowth of recent digital cinema movements and their celluloid predecessors. To hear Shelton discuss her desire to create a film environment that privileges the actors and story—and then to screen the stunning result—is to encounter (for example) the impact of the necessarily brief Dogme 95 movement. At their best, small cinema revolutions such as Dogme 95 encourage other filmmakers to discover their own freeing methods, and My Effortless Brilliance is evidence that old waves still have the power to create inspiring new ones.
Economical and tightly focused, the film is the story of Eric (musician-writer-actor Sean Nelson) and friend Dylan (Basil Harris). Eric has experienced a flash of success with a debut novel, titled My Effortless Brilliance. His growing selfishness and ego in the wake of that single triumph repel Dylan away from him and into the wilderness of Eastern Washington. Two years later, after experiencing successive literary failures and increasing vulnerability, Eric makes an unannounced visit to Dylan’s cabin. The weekend in the country provides a tentative reconnection, from which the plot emerges.
A low-key plot of this sort works against dominant conceptions and expectations for a cinematic experience. Even within much of what appears on the film festival circuit, Shelton’s work here is particularly understated. There are no stars or sensational elements to be exploited. The storyline is, on paper, uneventful. In this sense, the viewer is asked to identify with compact drama drawn from the characters’ interpersonal conflict and the quiet woodsy surroundings that amplify the chasm between them. Visually, the film is much closer to the observational documentary mode than it is to most scripted features. As a backwoods test of men, Deliverance this is not.
On the other hand, My Effortless Brilliance does not go quite as far out—visually or narratively—as the austere Gerry and Beau Travail in order to explore the resentment that can materialize from crises of communication amongst men. Instead, Shelton uses this stasis to mine a great deal of both comedy and drama from what these two characters cannot bring themselves to do or say.
This shiftlessness is a key theme, beginning with the opening prologue of Eric alone. Trapped by his own neuroses within his apartment, he moves from laptop to pencil and paper to typewriter, finding no inspiration in any of these methods. He rehearses answers to interview questions by comparing himself favorably to other, much more successful authors, and then insulting them outright within his imagined conversation.
Sitting around in his underwear and a rugby shirt, he cannot even successfully procure food. Dylan only enters the picture when Eric phones him to catch up, which is in reality a brazen attempt to get Dylan to deliver dinner. This is the event that leads to the catalyst for the rest of the plot, as Dylan arrives later with the food and says to Eric, “I think you’re a terrible friend.”
A break-up scene between friends, Dylan calling Eric out is less about a single embarrassing transgression than it is the culmination of escalating disintegration. Shelton and her actors/co-writers trust the audience to know that a lot of exposition has been kept off screen. In fact, this doorway scene is the one time we see the characters together before the two years ellipse into the second act.
Additionally, when Eric does show up to reconnect with Dylan, much of the plot is forwarded through subtext. Rather than use this setup to tell a story about how the city is confining and the country is inviting, Shelton increases the tension by reuniting the old friends at the moment of their deepest polarity: Eric is fully at odds with nature and Dylan is, comparatively, a mountain man.
A dinner scene on Eric’s first night at the cabin moves in an astonishing real-life rhythm. Silence gives way to small talk, which leads to puns, jokes and one-upmanship before settling back into silence. Benjamin Kasulke and Nate Miller’s camerawork (though occasionally too preoccupied with rack focus shots) charts this movement with a visual style that complements the alternately easy and uneasy dance of dialogue, improvised by Nelson and Harris and guided by Shelton.
Crucially, this scene establishes the kind of tension My Effortless Brilliance will offer throughout. Each silence brings the potential for something serious to be mentioned, and when Eric says, “There’s been one thing I’ve been wanting to ask,” the audience is certain he is going to address the breakup. After a pause, he brings one half of a set of antlers from under the table to make a joke about the missing other half. Only after he goes to the refrigerator for another beer and toasts to “everything being good again” does Dylan counter that everything isn’t resolved.
Another element that exposes the vast difference between the former friends is the character Jim (Calvin Reeder), who is Dylan’s new friend. The film’s concern is not the extent to which he has “replaced” Eric, but rather the kind of distinctly masculine role he fills. When Eric first arrives at the cabin, Jim approaches on horseback, carrying a gun. Eric questions him about the gun and his terse response is “Yeah. Cougar.” Jim’s effortless cowboy stature couldn’t be more removed from Eric’s effete city boy persona.
Later, Eric awakes to the sound of Dylan and Jim chopping wood. He stares in awe at what they’re doing, and there is a primal scene quality in the staging of the moment. Knowing he is impossibly outside of their rustic realm, he stands on the porch and jokes about a small hatchet he finds there before retreating inside the cabin to watch through the window.
Jim complicates the already unstable balance between Eric and Dylan. The camera frequently identifies with Eric in the way it watches these two at work and play. An extended “drinking and talking” sequence with the three men, like the earlier dinner scene, uses badinage to mask the need for more serious, friendship-mending conversation. But that conflict arises in reaction shots of Dylan at key moments such as when Eric and Jim seem to express a shared affection for Charles Bukowski. The distaste evident in Dylan’s silence and expressions fully erupts after a few more rounds, when he and Eric clash over reheated, decade-old arguments from college. By this point Jim is passed out on the floor.
The most arguably high-stakes event in the film is a hunt for the cougar that injects genuine levity into Eric and Dylan’s relationship, even if it does not repair the divide between them. Staged as a test that demands something different from each man, the hunt is eventually just as casual as anything else in the film. Yet this is the kind of adventure that the narrative requires at precisely the minute it arrives. Wrapping up the film’s concerns about finding ways to relate, the hunt is a shared experience, its newness in some small way salving the harsh emotional wounds that have been addressed and suppressed throughout.
My Effortless Brilliance closes with a few brief scenes that focus on the new position in which Eric and Dylan find themselves. Jim is not around. The silences are still present, but they have a different air than before.
In keeping with the minimalist tone of the rest of the work, Shelton does not force a concrete conclusion. What the audience takes away from the film is an appreciation of the effort it takes to address the wrongs of the past. The film isn’t so naïve as to advocate a cheery “no time like the present”. Though there is something deeply affirming in believing that saving a friendship is a worthy pursuit, even for stubborn adults who have a hard time articulating love and regret.