Dir/scr: Adam Rapp. US. 2007. 108 minutes.
Screening in the Narrative Features Competition at Austin's SXSW Festival, this depressing film treads a well-worn path. Its familiar story features a 32-year-old heroin-addicted Marine veteran named Bayliss (Sparks) who meets another addict, a 16-year-old runaway from Detroit named 'Froggy' (Jacobs) at the strip club where she works. They sort-of fall in love, in a tentative and wary way. The location is the mandatory, always memorably seedy New York City. While the script is largely inert, as is usually de rigueur for the genre, superb performances by Sparks and Jacobs keep the viewer going for a long while, hoping to be moved or given insight into the human condition to make up for the paralysis that otherwise reigns supreme.
Unfortunately, theatre director and playwright Rapp, clearly out of ideas and perhaps tired of his own lethargy by the end of the film, has decided to up the realist ante to sickening new levels that will turn off all but those with the hardiest constitutions. While it's difficult to imagine Blackbird getting US distribution, or even enjoying limited success on DVD, international buyers specialising in the downbeat may want to take a look. If, say, the Australian film Angel Baby (1995) or, further back, Barfly (1987) was your cup of tea, you may find Blackbird irresistible.
Adapted from Rapp's own stage production, the film is set in 1995, presumably to keep people from incessantly talking on mobile phones. Rapp cleverly begins his film in long shot, to establish the environment, and then gradually, and sensitively, moves mostly to close-ups. He is not afraid to hold his camera steady on a face, beyond the normal time limit, and for a while this realism works. He's also good at capturing the everyday with a handheld camera, and at its best his work can even recall that of the master, John Cassavetes.
At first, the film seems to refuse unrelenting darkness, and one is surprised by the small acts of human kindness that dent the overall gloom. About midpoint, there's a touching scene in which the lovers fantasise about the beautiful places they will travel to and the wonderful things they will do in the future, but viewers familiar with the genre know that these fantasies are merely ironic, even tragic, harbingers of further horrors to come. It goes without saying that Froggy becomes pregnant.
Vomiting scenes predominate and outnumber the love scenes at a roughly three-to-one ratio. And though Froggy is a stripper, Rapp prudishly never lets his camera stray below neck level, except when she is wearing a T-shirt that says God Fucked America, presumably a moment of social commentary.
By the end, Rapp pulls out all the stops: at one point we watch Bayliss change the dirty diaper he has been wearing for some reason, perhaps because he's hurt his back. Christmas music plays with unambiguously heavy irony against the misery of their final surroundings, and the score goes completely and jarringly dissonant for what seems like ages. Afraid that someone might miss the point, Rapp next turns to a violent red light that blinks on and off, incessantly, as we contemplate the horror of existence.
Bruce Marshall Romans