Downtown Owl Is a Desolate, Unconvincing Klosterman Adaptation

Movies Reviews Tribeca 2023
Downtown Owl Is a Desolate, Unconvincing Klosterman Adaptation

In Downtown Owl, an adaptation of the first novel by pop-cultural gadfly Chuck Klosterman, Julia (Lily Rabe) arrives in a small North Dakota town with low expectations. They’re unintentionally confirmed by locals, whose friendly rundown itemizes a whopping three bars and a movie theater that’s about to close; there’s barely any pop culture for anyone to ruminate on, Klosterman-style. Julia is in Owl to teach high school English for a semester, and make some money in a low-cost living situation while giving her husband some space to complete his graduate program. What Julia doesn’t seem to expect is a chance to relive multiple decades of her younger life. She’s thrust back into her 20s with a quick descent into social alcoholism, and maybe further back by the high-school-centric environment of both her day job and her nightlife. Julia’s new friend Naomi (Vanessa Hudgens), whose husband is closer at hand than Julia’s but similarly unseen for the entire film, advises that, as a new arrival, Julia will be observed with “homecoming glasses.”

When they first meet, Julia asks if Naomi’s rat-a-tat stageplay-style banter is actual conversation, or something she’s doing “for an audience.” Naomi, a character whose cartoonish single note nonetheless qualifies her as the most compelling in the film, understands that there’s no real point in differentiating between the two. Doesn’t this sound like a funny, observant movie? This film version of Downtown Owl, a 15-year-old novel that does not exactly inspire constant 2023 conversation, is obviously a passion project; Rabe and her partner Hamish Linklater co-direct it from Linklater’s screenplay. Yet despite its rueful musings on the time that passes whether or not you’re properly occupying yourself, and despite the clear passion Rabe and Linklater exhibit for this material, Downtown Owl persists in a kind of circular ramble. It’s so transfixed by the process of muddling through that the movie itself becomes an indistinct muddle of its own.

Part of the problem, sorry to say, is Rabe’s go-for-broke performance as Julia, which somehow occupies enough space to take over the movie without steering it in a particular direction. The novel, from my understanding, provides equal time to Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein), a conflicted football-player student of Julia’s, and Horace (Ed Harris), an old-timer townie caring for his incapacitated wife. Here, Horace is mostly Julia’s window into Owl’s past, while Mitch is an avatar of its potentially dead-end future. It’s a neat enough bit of character design, but Rabe’s nerd-turned-wild-child regression turns strangely opaque. Instead of beguiling us with thrilling recklessness or unspoken tragedy, she prompts nagging logistical questions, like why she repeatedly brushes off salacious gossip about her transparently dopey and condescending co-worker Coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock) and local student Tina (Arden Michalec) with a mystifying conviction that Laidlaw seems like too good a guy to do what sadly many charismatic authority figures do with their young charges. Julia’s character is also weighed down by an endless infatuated with Vance Druid (Henry Golding), a local legend for reasons eventually revealed as both amusingly convoluted and overblown. That backstory, though, turns him into a conceit in search of an insight (which, frankly, fits some of Klosterman’s self-satisfied pop-culture argument-starters as well).

Though Linklater and Rabe move things along with some stylistic editorializing – neon-subtitled montages; direct-camera address infrequent enough to sound wry – they also somehow make their setting seem even smaller and more nondescript than its Podunk-grade reputation. It’s probably not fair to ding a presumably low-budget production for a lack of lavishly appointed crowd scenes, but it’s also a little distracting to watch a movie set largely in a high school where the same six students and two teachers seem to roam the halls endlessly. (It’s so desolate-looking that Naomi, introduced as Julia’s colleague, appears in exactly one school scene.) Moreover, the movie has bizarre and tin-eared ideas about how teenagers talk and relate to one another, maybe because it doesn’t give them much space for ruminations that aren’t tightly hewn to the Coach Laidlaw subplot. Mitch and Tina have one real scene together, and it’s not enough to clear the haze of ambiguity about how either one feels about the other and, more importantly, why they might feel one way or another. Mitch’s small friend group makes even less sense, beyond the context of the movie’s few big confrontations, which are staged so terribly that the pared-down nature of quieter scenes begins to seem like a necessary limitation.

Downtown Owl does serve as a quick primer on almost everything writer-director David Gordon Green does right in his own small-town stories: Funny dialogue, astute camerawork, patience to explore his characters’ world – all lamentably patchy here. The ending of Downtown Owl lurches from maudlin tragedy to faux-philosophical uplift, pontificating with a sour, beery scent. I haven’t read Klosterman’s novel; maybe it lands better with all three fatefully linked characters more fully fleshed out. But in the spirit of an underqualified high-school English teacher putting together a syllabus, let me recommend some other titles. Winesburg, Ohio is a classic. A knowledgeable friend of mine recommends Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. And the rock-and-roll band The Hold Steady has multiple albums – hell, multiple songs – that convey what Downtown Owl is after in mere minutes.

Director: Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe
Writer: Hamish Linklater
Starring: Lily Rabe, Ed Harris, August Blanco Rosenstein, Vanessa Hudgens, Finn Wittrock, Henry Golding
Release Date: June 8, 2023 (Tribeca Festival)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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