Storytelling presents a look at life that is real but displays little in the way of hope or optimism.

Some moviemakers dare to tread the thin line of exploring the human condition and being just plain morose. They present a look at life that is real but displays little in the way of hope or optimism. Todd Solondz is such a director and in his latest opus, Storytelling, he presents two tales that may depress but are certain to engross you.

The first part of Storytelling is titled ‘Fiction’. It opens with a young college student Vi (Selma Blair) just finishing having sex with her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick). Marcus has cerebral palsy and both he and Vi are aspiring authors. While they lie together in bed he is insistent that she listens to the latest revision of his story. Vi seems bored; in fact, Marcus accuses her of not really loving him, that she was with him first for the kinky aspect of the relationship and now stays with him only out of kindness. They both take a creative writing course lorded over by a somewhat famous African-American author (Robert Wisdom) that manages to demean most students while critiquing their work. Among the students are two groups; those that bend over backward to be politically correct in their opinions of Marcus’ work. The other students are sycophants, concerned more with saying something that will meet with the approval of the teacher than in helping their fellow student. Vi meets the Professor in a bar and winds up in his room. There he makes her strip and submit to his own rape fantasies. There is nothing in the way of love making here, only brutal sex strewn with racial slurs and overwhelming physical and emotion battery.

The second part of Storytelling is labeled ‘Non-Fiction’. Toby (Paul Giamatti) is a loser. All he needs is the letter ‘L’ tattooed on his forehead. When we first see him he is calling a high school girlfriend disparate for an audience as he lists his trials, tribulations and hopes. He wants to be a documentary filmmaker. His chosen topic is to focus on the modern high school student. While asking permission in a local high school he meets Scooby (Mark Webber). Scooby is unfocused, sexually ambiguous and wants to be a TV talk show host like Conan O’Brien. The family life of Scooby is horrible. While on the surface they are a successful, upper class Jewish family there is little in the way of connection between the family members. The father (John Goodman) is authoritarian, his rule of the family based on the level of his voice and sending the dissenting child away. The mother (Julie Hagerty) tries to be the peacemaker but is ineffectual. There are two brothers for Scooby, Brady (Noah Fleiss) and the preteen Mikey (Jonathan Osser). Brady is a football star with the beautiful blond cheerleader girlfriend. Mikey is a self-centered little brat that just knows the world was placed here for his sole use. As Toby uses Scooby for a documentary he is more concerned with impressing his editor (Franka Potente) than he is with the disintegrating life of the family he is filming.

Typical of a Solondz film the cast is beyond perfect. Each actor puts on their character like a comfortable pair of jeans. They inhabit their roles rather than just presenting them. Blair as Vi brings a vulnerability to her character. Being accused of making love to Marcus out of kindness cuts too deep for her prompting her visit to the bar where she meets the Professor. During their interlude she submits to his brutal demands in a desperate need for acceptance. When she writes about the interlude as one of her stories the criticism she permitted against her boyfriend is now directed at her and she is emotionally unable to take it. Fitzpatrick is perhaps best known for forceful roles like he had in Kids and Bully. In Storytelling, as a person with a disability he exhibits a more human side. He also is in need of acceptance, which is really the only thing Marcus has in common with Vi. Giamatti is rapidly becoming a character actor that portrays the ‘everyman’ extremely well. The audience can identify with him while at the same time being very thankful they don’t have his life. Webber is well cast as the disenfranchised youth. You look at him and see ‘stoner’, ‘slacker’ but the fear here is in light of the recent high school violence what is beneath the surface. One notable portrayal is Osser as Mikey. Not since the original ‘Bad Seed’ have I seen a child presented as so polite yet absolutely frightening in their lack of social conscious. After listening to the maid tell him how her son was just executed he states that he is sorry, now can you clean up the mess I made in the kitchen. The FBI profilers should keep track of this kid.

Todd Solondz is not a director for everyone’s tastes. Like his previous films ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ and ‘Happiness’, this view of suburban life is bleak. He presents Storytelling here in a straightforward manner that will hold your attention every moment. In the second story of Storytelling he plants several misleading clues to the ultimate tragedy that ends the story. Rather than go for the expected ending he teases the audience and then take a different route altogether. Shots like the dinner table at Scooby’s home visually shows their emotional distance while sitting close at a table. They are there in body but emotionally there is no family. Often Solondz lingers on a face or scene. This brings a discomfort to the audience on a real visceral level. He is master of his craft but does not flaunt it at all.

The Storytelling disc is well done but will be a bit disappointing to those looking for the full technical use of the DVD format. While listed as Dolby 5.1 the rear speakers and sub woofer are hardly used. The Storytelling video is excellent and gets the job done. Where this disc really shines is the number of versions presented, four. There are widescreen and full screen versions for both the rated and unrated versions. In the United States the sex scene in Fiction was covered by a bright red rectangle. No such covering was used in the European release. The director had to submit to the whim of the MPAA for theatrical release here but thanks to DVD the decision is, as it should be, yours. Storytelling is dark but like others of Solondz’ works extremely worthwhile.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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