Fort Tilden’s quite charming, though filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers never let their charmless subjects, acerbic artist Harper (Bridey Elliott) and spineless Peace Corps recruit Allie (Clare McNulty), gain too much of their audience’s sympathy. It’s a narrow line to walk: the mid-20s Williamsburg roommates have to seem vacuous enough to get stranded in “deep Brooklyn” after passively watching one of their bikes get stolen while on an 11-mile daytrip to the beach, but not so stupid that they can’t lob the occasional well-honed insult at a fellow human being or incisively dissect each other’s insecurities.
Unfortunately, the film’s uneven tone is largely the result of the filmmakers choosing to fudge this distinction—whether Harper and Allie are vapid and ineffectual incompetents or self-absorbed-but-insightful truth-tellers—depending on the scene. Considering this is a film about quarter-life crises, these fluctuations in maturity make sense to a point, but this blurring of how we’re supposed to perceive Harper and Allie isn’t helped by the fact that the tone of the film and the quality of the dialogue also vary scene to scene—even line to line. This film is a giant mood swing: at times in hysterics; at others distracted and impatient.
Overarching critiques aside, there are some very funny moments, like Harper throwing a copy of Infinite Jest on her couch to make her apartment “sex ready,” punctuated with a perfect little bit of business by Elliot where she double checks how “casual” it looks lying there. There are plenty throughout: secondary characters commenting on the girls’ rompers and Harper’s hat with various levels of shade; the girls purchasing a barrel off the street and, after deciding it’s too heavy to carry up their stairs, abandoning it in their apartment building’s common (and extremely narrow) foyer; Harper graphically waxing about being sexually aroused by evil cartoon fauna; etc.
But long stretches of the movie lack (funny) jokes entirely, as if a punch-up writer only got around to 30% of the dialogue. A mid-film shopping montage featuring Harper and Allie asking a series of rote questions about each other’s style falls flat, like the brainstorm session for Funny Things Williamsburg Hipsters Might Say And Do In A Discount Clothing Store In A Working-Class Brooklyn Neighborhood got cut short in production and nobody thought to reschedule it. This lack of interesting content especially drags after a similarly limp scene in which Harper and Allie—both of whom seem shallow and self-absorbed; neither of whom seem stupid—try to get iced coffee from a small bodega that clearly doesn’t sell iced coffee, but also after an incredibly sharp and interesting moment where Harper surveys the entire neighborhood only moments before and is “inspired” to start a new art project called “dollhouse ghetto.” This movie isn’t afraid to hang its two main characters out to dry as horrible people, which makes it weird when it occasionally chooses to present them as merely stupid, often in the service of half-assed jokes in half-assed scenes.
It’s especially frustrating because the scenes that do work do so incredibly well—and holistically speaking, the structure of this film is impeccable. The underlying theme of the clothing store scene is that Harper and Allie, both of whom seem to live at the pleasure of Harper’s rich father (Harper directly, and Allie probably by not really having to pay rent), are giddy to find fashionable clothing at such low prices, while surrounded by women of color and working-class women. Of course, by the time they get to the register, they’re already second guessing the clothes they were so excited about only moments ago, and events later on in the film prompt them to abandon the garments altogether without a second thought. That they do so adjacent to a scene where they find a barrel on the beach that is identical to the one they purchased much earlier in the film, “only it’s naturally distressed,” shows how well crafted the plot of this film is: Everything is disposable for Harper and Allie; they invest lots of meaning in their goals (to get to the beach; to have sex; to make art; to buy clothes; to join the Peace Corps), but once they attain them they feel empty inside. They’ve both learned that it’s better to stay in the attainment process, permanently, because at least there’s something to tell people you’re working towards.
All of these journeys track, emotionally and thematically, providing a strong backbone to an interrogation of the lives of these two women. But…if we rewind back to that scene in the store? The dialogue is only fine. Underserviced. Despite strong performances from Elliot and McNulty and an easy, fraught chemistry between them, there are just too many scenes where the dialogue is only okay for Fort Tilden to get a no-reservations recommendation.
It’s a shame that parts of the movie aren’t as fleshed out as they might be, because it seems the filmmakers have some really interesting things to say about identity and responsibility. Harper and Allie do eventually make it to the beach, but by the time they get there their nerves have been frayed to the point where they lash out at one another, and this is before coming to the harsh realization that the two boys they were looking to hook up with aren’t what they expected. Then, in one of Fort Tilden’s finest moments, the denouement sees Allie growing a spine while cracks appear in Harper’s acerbic mask.
Throughout, Harper and Allie have been fighting an early assertion that they are basically twins, employing the argument that their personalities are so different that the distinctions are obvious. The film’s end suggests that while each woman’s interpretation of and explanation for her actions are wildly different from the other’s, their actions (or inactions) end up being effectively the same. Yes, the assertive one helps the spineless one be more assertive and the compassionate one helps the harsh one be more compassionate, but in Fort Tilden this typical character arc only serves to prove that Harper and Allie are the twins they’ve been mocking. One romper is plain; one’s floral—they’re still just rompers, as a multitude of characters point out. The final scene puts a lovely button on all of this, but it’s another example of how thoughtful and confident Bliss and Rogers can be as filmmakers. There’s just a little too much chafe for the strong parts to overcome, even if those strong parts are really worth a viewing.
Directors: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers
Writers: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers
Starring: Clare McNulty, Bridey Elliot
Release Date August 14, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.