There is always the risk of sentimentality for a writer, actor, director in depicting a terminally ill, or potentially terminal ill, character. The risk is even greater if none of the above have experienced the process.
Picasso once listed nostalgia and sentimentality as enemies of art, and reportedly walked out on the premiere screening of Charlie Chaplin‘s valentine to himself, the embarrassingly saccharine Limelight (1952). The younger Chaplin, unfettered by dialogue, is one of the few artists who could actually get away with overt pathos. An older, talking Chaplin could not.
As written, directed by and starring Kevin L. Chenault, Lattie (2016) does not entirely escape or transcend that inherent risk. Like Chaplin, Lattie succeeds most when relying on visuals to interpret his narrative. Even then, the film is uneven. At times, Chenault is almost in an experimental mode, but there are just as many vignettes that hold back and play it safe. Striking a James-Dean-lying-alone-on-the-floor posture, contemplating his condition, Lattie smokes his cigarette down to the butt, accompanied by angsty indie alt music that sounds like it cut its teeth on post-Syd Barret Pink Floyd (AKA “lesser Floyd”). Lattie receives a voice message of concern, talks to family and shrink, gets hugged. Here, it’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking, a rudimentary sketch hampered by arthritic acting, with the exception of Chenault himself as the title character.
Once done with the obligatory disease-of-the-week bullet points, Chenault trusts himself, and us, venturing into quirkier, more refreshing terrain. Lattie is catapulted into an absurdist murder mystery combining offbeat humor and visual cues: a Christmas tree, a pre-adolescent drawing on a face, an ominous Bible as a facade for a cash-stashed phone book. When overly-serious family members prod him about his impending drama, Lattie is too preoccupied to invest much time in shoulder-patting. He has a mystery to solve. Damn right. And, of course, there are the little hassles, like an uncooperative truck and stooge-like adversaries who attempt to derail the murder investigation.
Lattie is episodic in the best way, its surreal qualities conveyed in under-the-breath pacing. When it gets right to the meat of it, Lattie confirms that, for death to be interesting, there has to be a bit of funny business. The unexpected finale is welcome and queerly memorable.
Chenault’s body of work is an interesting one, with his strengths being in sublime restraint (seen at its most effective in 2011’s The Strangers). As in Chenault’s previous efforts, Lattie is well-filmed and shows a filmmaker concerned about craftsmanship, commendably unhampered by budget restraints.
More information on Lattie is available at the official home page.