Two Step: Grounded in the In-Between

James (Skyy Moore) in Two Step

James (Skyy Moore) in Two Step

There must be something about the desert climate that induces a natural psychedelic effect on filmmakers, as a peculiar affinity for quirky otherworldliness seems to characterize many cinematic depictions of the American South. The region and its culture have fascinated and inspired the Coen brothers through several remarkable films, and Richard Linklater’s Slacker set the standard for contemporary explorations of existential drift by its surreal tone and zealous dialogue. Director Alex R. Johnson’s feature debut subtly follows suit, as a slow-sauntering thriller armed with quirky charm and an easy manner that belies its killer instinct.

James (Skyy Moore) should be a familiar character to filmgoers: as the pained, directionless teenager uprooted by the death of his parents and shuffled off to a close relative, he is the archetypal orphan abandoned by fate. When death beats James to his grandmother’s home in Austin, Texas, his shellshocked haplessness – which recalls Jack Nicholson’s performance as the eponymous protagonist of About Schmidt – demonstrates just how unprepared he is for life as an adult. Circumstances propel him further from safety and stability when he encounters Webb (James Landry Hébert), an equally aimless character as well as a desperate small-time criminal, who presents a compelling and brutal challenge by which James can either overcome his sense of helplessness or perish. The film hangs on local-flavoured dialogue for the bulk of its mood and personality, and the interplay between characters is the anchor that moors each scene against the story’s undertones of displacement and disorientation. James’ new neighbor Dot, played with glowing charm by Beth Broderick, is the moral compass of the film as the only character who functions within a constant, conventional framework – she has a job as a dance instructor, a home, and a life of her own – Dot provides a grounded counterbalance to the rudderless characters who gravitate towards her.

Two Step is most interesting in its careful observance of horizons. The deliberate, slow pace of the film emphasizes the aimlessness and anxiety displayed by both James and Webb, while the many tracking shots at chest-height ensure that the viewer’s sense of perspective (and comfort) remains slightly disoriented throughout – equal parts earth and sky, the frame feels oddly grounded yet untethered. Compared to the Coens’ or Linklater’s work, Johnson’s conception of weird is more understated and insightful than offbeat and outré, and that’s a good thing for a film that is most at home where worlds quietly meet and blur.

Two Step premieres tonight at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Info)