Pioneer isn’t quite as over-the-top as many of the shorts selected by Sundance, but this is actually a strength. The subtle weirdness is expertly done, which makes the story feel suspenseful and real.
DIRECTED BY: Todd Rohal
FEATURING: Katy Haywood, Sheila Scullin, , Rich Schreiber, Ken Byrnes, Kathleen Kennedy, Ivan Dimitrov, Cory McAbee
PLOT: After her boyfriend goes missing a pregnant woman with dozens of sisters (all from
different mothers) enters a demolition derby against her Guatemalan father… and that’s just one of many plot lines running concurrently in this bizarre rural community.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although a Guatemalan Handshake sounds like something you’d have to pay extra for at a massage parlor, it’s actually a strange little indie movie that takes the concept of ‘quirky and stretches it way past the breaking point. Think what would happen if Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared Hess had been hired to remake Gummo as a comedy and you’ll be somewhere in the stylistic neighborhood of this oddly conceived debut.
COMMENTS: Though things sort themselves out in the end, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be totally lost within the first ten minutes of The Guatemalan Handshake. The narrator, a spindly young girl named Turkeylegs, explains that her best friend, nerdy turtle-loving Donald, has gone missing, and introduces us to his father (who, like almost everyone else in town, doesn’t much care about his son’s disappearance) and his pregnant girlfriend Sadie, the daughter of a Guatemalan demolition-derby Lothario with dozens of (all-female) illegitimate children he drives around in a school bus. While you’re still trying to wrap our minds around those details, all of which and more are delivered before the film’s title rolls, you see Donald’s last known appearance, watch a lapdog get electrocuted, and learn of a mysterious power failure whose aftermath is explained in spooky overlapping voiceovers. More crazy characters appear, including a depressed older woman who wanders around in the background asking if anyone’s seen her missing dog, and Stool, a loser with a bowl haircut and a crustache who can’t hold down a job but nevertheless decides to romance Sadie. And, as if Handshake‘s capriciously quirky characterizations and the way the story dips in and out of their lives weren’t disorienting enough, the film’s style also changes every few minutes. Sequences are sped up, and we may suddenly find ourselves inside an unannounced flashback or watching an earnest freak-folk music video or taking in one of the many magical realist digressions, such as TV-personality Spank Williams’ unsuccessful public suicide or the tale of the woman who reads her own obituary in the morning paper. Even dinner (which for Turkeylegs consists of a chocolate bunny filled with chocolate milk and covered in whipped cream) is an experiment in fast-cutting montage. It’s winsome, it’s twee, and it annoyed the hell out of a lot of moviegoers who considered it pretentious hipster twaddle with no “real” characters; yet, it’s only fair to point out that all of the indie movie clichés Handshake displays are pushed so far that they become parody, and the film’s detractors may be missing part of the joke. How seriously can we be intended to take a film that gives its characters with names like Turkeylegs, Stool, Ethel Firecracker and Donald Turnupseed? Handshake works perfectly in its own conceptual stratosphere, but at ground level things sometimes falter: you can seldom relate to the bizarre characters, and the jokes are more awkward than funny. And although the film is loosely tied together by the theme of loss—missing persons, lost dogs, and stolen cars—it doesn’t have much to say about its subject. Handshake‘s only real passions are experimentation and eccentricity. Whether that’s enough to carry the film is up to the viewer to judge.
The Guatemalan Handshake won the Slamdance special jury prize in 2006. It didn’t receive theatrical distribution, but the DVD release was surprisingly elaborate: a two disc edition complete with commentary track, numerous behind the scenes features and six short films featuring Handshake‘s cast and crew.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“An understated, surrealist comedy that is more successful at being weird than funny, the film seeks to capture the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’-influenced tone of bizarre small-town quirkiness. It falls short of the mark, but not by much.”–Phil Villareal, Arizona Daily Star (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Funkadelic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)