On Tuesday night (10.20.09) O.C. filmmaker Regina Crosby’s film “Teenage Dirtbag” screened at the Regency South Coast Village Theater. Since Ms Crosby has sold the distribution rights to the film to Universal (congrats due for that), and Universal has decided to take it direct to video, this was one of the rare times it could be seen big.
There was a Q&A with Director Crosby and Actor Michael Bradley after the screening led by Mark Sevi of the Orange County Screenwriters Association.
Thumbnail critique - a movie and evening worth the price of admission.
While Dirtbag isn’t a masterpiece and exhibts many flaws (including a choppy and inconsistent narrative thread,) Ms Crosboy shows a depth and breath of understanding of the human condition that finds its way into the small moments of this film. This is made even more amazing by the fact that this was her first produced script, and that Ms Crosby was tapped to direct only two days before the cameras were to roll - something that came as a complete shock to her when the producers of the film suddenly released several of the crew including the original director just days before principal photography. Since there were already too many balls in the air to reschedule the shoot, the producers convinced Crosby, with no measurable directing experience, to step in.
To her unending credit, she did a masterful job wringing out powerful performances from her actors and getting great work from her crew. The film feels professional, works on many levels and manages to surprise even while delivering on the “expected” moments.
The story is somewhat basic, told non-linearly in the form of a long flashback: Cheerleader Girl from right side of tracks finds Freaky Boy from wrong side of the tracks interesting. Girl meets Jerk, Jerk turns out to be troubled, sensitive type, girl falls in love with him through his writing (they attend the same creative writing class) but ultimately turns on boy because she can’t be in love with Freaky Guy from wrong clique and, more importantly, he makes her feel things she does not want to feel - like life isn’t this tidy, comfortable package for everyone - and he has the physical and emotional wounds to show it.
Crosby never goes for the easy moments - the “Hollywood” moments all too expected these days. Even the “big” moments found in every drama in Crosby’s hands are tighter, smaller and much more personal - like you’re reading someone’s diary. A knife to the throat is diffused in a confusion of shouting and an unexpected release of tension; the central characters, although experiencing what most of us would call deep, passionate love, never really kiss and in fact The Amber character, well-played by Israeli actress Noa Hegesh, has relations with a lot of young men but never the one who captures her heart and her mind.
A real find in this film is the male lead, Scott Michael Foster. When he is on stage you are never sure which way his smoldering energy will take him. I wish he had attended the screening so some insight into his process could have been explored. But watch for him - he’s the real deal and I promise he will be seen again and again.
Michael Bradley as the creative writing teacher was another revelation. His pitch perfect performance was so infused with veracity, you could swear he was actually a teacher in a classroom who simply had a camera embedded in the ceiling to capture his real creative writing classes.
A sharp soundtrack embraces, enhances, and keeps the action rolling without feeling like a constant music video. Lines like “your face brings me death every day, and every day I can’t wait to die ” or "I plead for normal between these walls, for hell to take the night off" (recited as poems in class) keep you thinking and listening to dialogue that beats out like simple truths.
One of the nice narrative techniques used to get the couple to learn about each other was the clever use of a notebook passed between them to communicate silently in study hall. This gave the exchanges a lot more intimacy and immediacy - in today's world it would be texting each other - and that notebook's contents would have been lost to the Amber character forever. Digital memories can be very fleeting unless they are saved properly and who bothers keeping texts? An old notebook, casually tossed into a box, can yield a real treasure of memories when it's uncovered years later. This was true for Amber and formed a vital endnote to the film.
Ms Crosby’s movie is as personal as her life. Inspired by true events (a legal definition,) the painful “true” events play out as a paean to physical and emotional pain at a time when the world is both electrifying and terrifying - in other words, high school. Dreams are born and shattered; love is gained and lost; and sometimes life ends more abruptly than ever imagined. You turn around and you’re having kids, paying mortgages and working a job you never imagined having. But there is that...summer - or that semester...or that one teacher or boy in the hall or girl at the football game who changed you for the better and worse. This then is the movie.
An odd phenomena of this film is that it truly gets better and more accessible with each viewing. I saw it three times - twice to do the Q&A and once in the theater. Each time I found myself more involved and engaged with these lives. I noticed subtleties in the narrative and dialogue that had escaped me before. I’d even see this again to see what new information I could glean from this film and the subtle truths it presents.
There were times when I wished for a bit more insight about the back and forth between the couple but sometimes it can be good to allow the film to just present the moments and you fill in your truth.
Dirtbag is being released to video this week and in On Demand in some markets. See it. Don’t expect it to bowl you over - just to get under your skin and stay there.