Kurt Voelker's The Bachelors is an engaging, moving indie drama that is blessedly free of both pretense and self-conscious quirkiness. One could easily imagine the same film being overlaid with some kind of Wes Anderson-esque postmodern oddity or Little Miss Sunshine-style contrived cuteness. Rather, Voelker plays the material straight, allowing humor to emerge naturally and keeping the focus on the characters and their various plights. There is little in the way of visual flourish; although cinematographer Antonio Riestra has lensed some highly stylized films in recent years, including Andy Muschietti's pre-It horror film Mama (2013) and the feudal adventure yarn Last Knights (2015), he keeps things simple and direct here, which allows the story's raw emotional core the room it needs to breathe.
The story opens with Bill Palet (J.K. Simmons), a middle-aged father, coming into his teenage son Wes's (Josh Wiggins) room in the middle of the night and saying simply, "I can't stay here anymore." And just like that, as the opening credits role, father and son leave everything behind and drive across the country where Bill takes a job at a posh Southern California prep school run by his old college friend, Paul Abernac (Kevin Dunn). The reason for this sudden and dramatic move soon emerges: Bill has recently lost Jeanie, his wife of 33 years, to cancer, and he simply cannot deal with the grief. He comes to conclusion that uprooting himself and Wes and surrounding themselves with a new environment will help him move on. It's not, of course, that simple, and both father and son continue to struggle with the gaping hole left by Jeanie's sudden death (we learn there were exactly 61 days between her being diagnosed with cancer and her passing away).
Both Bill and Wes become romantically involved-Bill with a sensitive French teacher at the school named Carine (Julie Delpy) and Wes with Lacy (Odey Arush), an emotionally moody girl with whom he is paired by Carine as homework partners. Voelker, who both wrote and directed, interweaves the paired stories of father and son trying to move past an awful event in ways that draw attention to their shared grief and their dramatically different means of dealing with it. Bill, who is both stoic and humorous in a droll sort of way (he describes the style of his unpacked house as "negligent minimalism"), is having the most outwardly difficult time and is teetering on the edge of an abysmal depression from which he might not emerge. At Paul's insistence, he begins seeing a therapist (Harold Perrineau) who primarily serves as a narrative tool to explain what Bill is dealing with, although their scenes are ultimately necessarily for reinforcing the cognitive realities of Bill's deep-seated, but largely unspoken grief.
Wes, on the other hand, simply buries his sadness and tries to move on, developing friendships with a pair of oddball outsiders with whom he runs cross-country (Tyrel Jackson Williams and Jae Head) and slowly breaking down the wall Lacy has built around herself. In a sense, The Bachelors is about walls coming down, as Bill and Wes struggle to process their sense of loss and get on with life without forgetting, while Lacy learns to let people into her otherwise closed-off world, the walls of which are daily strengthened by her insidiously bickering, soon-to-be-divorced parents.
The Bachelors is Voelker's sophomore feature, following his multi-narrative indie Park (2006), and it suggests a filmmaker who is both in touch with his characters' inner lives and unafraid to portray them shorn of irony or any other form of self-consciousness. This leads him into some clichd territory, to be sure, and many of the narrative beats in The Bachelors are so familiar that you can sense them coming long before they arrive. There is nothing terribly surprising here or revelatory, but Voelker works the material so well and with such confidence that it's easy to forgive the film when it bogs down temporarily in big speeches or inevitable characters clashes.
It also helps that he is working with a gifted cast who pour into the characters, particularly J.K. Simmons is quite adept at playing otherwise straight characters with a streak of absurd humor (his befuddled father in 2006's Juno remains one of his most indelible roles), but here he plays Bill with a real sense of depth and sadness that is always creeping out of the corners of his eyes. It's an incredibly internal performance, albeit one that necessarily must erupt in tears at some point. Similarly, both Josh Wiggins (Max) and Odey Arush (Lady Bird) make Wes and Lacy into realistic, thoughtful, and believable teenagers; the characters they play and the relationship they develop are honest and poignant in the best sense, which is a good description of the film as a whole.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3)
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