There’s a scene in the 1997 film The Edge, written by David Mamet, in which fashion photographer Robert Green, played by Alec Baldwin, is flying over the Alaskan wilderness with billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) in a single engine plane. Shortly before a bird strike downs them into the waters below, the unassuming Morse turns to Green with the simple question: “So, how do you plan on killing me?”
I was reminded of Mamet in watching Kris Avedisian’s debut feature film, Donald Cried, not for the dialogue, but for the projection of masculinity and deceit between the titular character (also played by Avedisian) and returned hometown boy Peter (Jesse Wakeman). They meet again after nearly 20 years when the latter arrives via bus to settle his deceased grandmother’s estate, only to discover that his wallet is gone. Hesitating, Peter sees his high school friend outside of his childhood home across the street and reaches out for help in an awkward conversation that sets the story—which takes place over a period of about 24 hours—in motion.
Donald’s shadow soon spreads itself out like a warm blanket amidst snow-covered suburban Rhode Island, his hair and lifestyle fossilized since adolescence, his lack of a filter and desperate clinging to the past leading to painfully funny remembrances. If he isn’t embarrassing Peter in a diner, reminding his friend’s high school crush of her Homecoming Dance rejection in front of her current husband, he’s telling Peter about the time his grandmother walked in on Donald in flagrante delicto solo before asking, “Did she mention her seeing my penis?”
But the tropes of cringe comedy in this character study—executive produced by Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Gordon Green—along with the archetype of the manchild or the narrative of the journey back home, are not gutted for simple laughs. Avedisian subverts them while Sam Fleischner’s wide-angle cinematography, juxtaposed against narrow interior shots, depicts the highways, strip malls and modest two-story colonials of Rhode Island as vessels of entrapment. Older model televisions constantly play cage wrestling or weightlifting in the background. Peter claims to be working in finance in Manhattan, yet he takes a Peter Pan bus and can’t get anyone outside of Donald to loan him money. Donald, meanwhile, revels in movie fantasies and has never fully recovered emotionally from an ex tricking him into raising a child, only to abscond with the biological father. Both men kid themselves and each other until it becomes clear to the viewer that despite Donald’s loud proclamations, they are clearly rivals, and that despite Peter’s protestations, he is clearly a willing participant in Donald’s requests.
The title of the film, it should be pointed out, is serendipitous, dating back to Avedisian’s short of the same name in 2012. Despite its focus on un- and underemployed men in post-industrial America, specifically the issues of prescription drug abuse and depression, the movie makes no clear political statement. Instead the viewer watches the masks of crippled emotions and stunted adolescence slowly slip off to reveal past humiliations and shattered self-esteems. Avedisian humanizes the Mediocre White Man by stripping him of any confidence (particularly when faced with an alpha male) and focusing on emotional and economic alienation, the latter given a tangible quality as we are privy to Mediocre White Men’s living and work situations.
Avedisian’s performance as Donald gives the character dimensions beyond that of a gawky townie, the kind of person acting as a punchline for those who moved to the Big City. Jesse Wakeman is also more than adept as Peter; his face never registers more than stifled anger or bemusement. The roles here are reversed: the latter is more often the butt of jokes. For 24 hours Donald is given a break from stagnancy, lording a home court advantage like a high school grudge match basketball game in which the crowd cheers for no one but watches in curiosity.
For a film based on “remember when”—which Tony Soprano famously called “the lowest form of conversation”—there is much substance in a matter of 85 minutes, a fitting length for a story free of gratuities, a film which flies by thanks to Donald Cried’s episodic story arc. One never knows exactly what will happen, plot more and more unpredictable as new revelations are made that shatter the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and builds tension between Donald and Peter. The threat of violence is never too far away, particularly when a gun is introduced into the story in a shrouded boyhood hideaway the two return to following a funeral.
Donald Cried is free of “nice guy” characters and never relies on raunchy humor, the exclusions of which give the movie a greater sense of verisimilitude. It calls to mind, painfully, the multitudes of men across the country facing similar crises amidst a post-industrial economy and shifting social mores. While we may ask ourselves if we really need another portrait of contemporary working class masculinity, a close examination shows a gleeful subversion of tired cinematic conceits, giving new life to an otherwise too-well-known kind of person.
Director: Kris Avedisian
Writer: Kris Avedisian
Starring: Kris Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman
Release Date: March 3, 2017
Eric Nelson is a prose writer and cultural critic living in Queens, New York.