Warren Cantrell reviews a new indie film from the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival:
For those out there uninformed on the subject, “hipster” is a fairly recent personality modifier that’s unique to the 21st century art scene. It grew out of a rebellious counter-movement defined by its opposition to a commoditized music scene that had grown stale and rotten.
Britney Spears, boy-bands, and Carson Daly were the face of pop-culture in the U.S. at the turn of the last century, and an indie-rock movement that had already begun to gain momentum in the mid-90’s came together as a bona fide “scene” by the year 2000.
Yet what began as a defiant, honest push to release good music independently quickly turned into a dress-code rallying cry for angst-ridden twenty-somethings with one-size-too-small jeans and leftover flannel from their older siblings’ grunge days. Generally nice people, these hipsters often congregate in healthy numbers and with similar fashion sensibilities, leading to a scene-generality and stereotype that most of them despise.
The main character in I Am Not a Hipster is just such a fellow. Brook (Dominic Bogart) is a petty, selfish, moody son of a bitch, and what’s worse, he’s also a lousy drunk. A local San Diego music scene darling because of the successful reception of his independently released debut album, ‘Canines,’ Brook wanders in and out of hipster parties, sneering with contemptuous disdain at the well-meaning people lauding his work. He can’t stand this praise, which he considers as empty and shallow as the people offering it. What’s worse, he’s a self-loathing misanthrope, for as he says in a radio interview early on, he’s lost all interest in art, including his own, and feels he has nothing left to offer in this regard.
Brook’s ultimate dilemma as a character is his inability to come to terms with the paradox that is his existence. He acts like he despises everything about the inconsequential hipster world he’s immersed in, and laments the shallow triviality that surrounds the parties, relationships, and artistic endeavors he’s engaged in. As Brook sees it, in life-and-death terms, music, friendships, and parties are all bullshit, and don’t really matter. For Brook it’s a very Zen conclusion, yet also a bullshit one, for the man clearly does care: his suffering on his sleeve for all to see.
I Am Not a Hipster is a one-week snapshot of Brook’s life, and is an exploration into what it means to be a part of a community (even one so quirky as “hipster”), and how powerfully therapeutic music can be for a broken soul. As the film unfolds, the audience learns that Brook moved to San Diego two years ago after the death of his mother. His widely-lauded debut album was Brook’s response to that tragedy, and acts as the foundation for the events of this film, but also as an albatross for the character.
During the week in question, Brook’s father and three sisters arrive to scatter their mother’s ashes at sea, and it’s this visit that provides the catalyst for Brook’s growth. Writer-director Destin Cretton does a wonderful job balancing the caustic, mean-spirited facets of Brook’s personality against the wounded, lost character he’s created for his debut feature film. Unforgivably pretentious, juvenile, and petty, Brook frequently lashes out at the few people that still tolerate his presence, including his best-friend/agent, Clarke (Alvaro Orlando), who is at the center of Brook’s most catastrophic meltdown of the picture.
Yet after his three sisters descend upon him, there is a refreshing release in the man, who finally seems to open up and reveal a side that’s capable of happiness and warmth. The visit isn’t without drama, however, as the girls have brought their father, who refuses to even approach Brook’s doorstep lest he’s first invited (something Brook won’t do). This father-son crisis acts as the tipping point for the film, as Brook’s steady downward spiral into self-deprecating despair is rooted in the same poisoned soil that pollutes the relationship between the two men.
The movie feels like a Peter Weir or Gus van Sant film, what with the thoughtful, silent shots scored by heavy yet honest music. As it develops, I Am Not a Hipster expands like a delicate character study, one fearlessly ambitious enough to tackle a challenging mark in Brook, a man who could be elected chapter-president of his regional Asshole association.
Destin Cretton creates an inviting, mood-appropriate universe for this story to live, and uses the camera wonderfully so that he can bring out deeper layers of scenes via clever camera set-ups and long-shots. This skill is most capably demonstrated during the house party scene early on, when Brook uses an impromptu musical set to publicly tell off his ex-girlfriend. It’s a delightfully painful and effective scene, not to mention a hilariously reminiscent moment that brings memories of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything to mind.
Brook’s music is the emotional backbone of the film, and provides the thematic pulse of the narrative, one which is regrettably thin and incomplete. Indeed, I Am Not a Hipster feels like 2/3 of a story that is only just beginning to pay off when it fades out 90 minutes in. Though the movie spends the better part of its run-time dismantling Brook’s character, there’s a lack of payoff or recompense. As the film ends and Brook begins to stumble into a thoughtful, balanced life, the audience wonders if there’s been any real growth, or just a little perspective and peace gained as a result of a timely family visit.
A good movie that only succeeded in bringing its character about halfway down the path towards a healthy end, it would have been far more satisfying if the audience got to see Brook get there, or at the very least, feel confident that he one day would.
Currently playing at this year’s S.I.F.F., I Am Not a Hipster is worth seeing, for the picture, like its main character, is a glimmer of promise one hopes will eventually develop into something even better.