Monday, October 1, 2012

Juenger Be Good: "Johnny Be Gone" (2011)

There are bright shiny happy films, and then there is "Johnny Be Gone."

Johnny (Erik A. Williams) is a confused young man in St. Louis, Missouri. When he isn't having sex with his constantly high narcoleptic roommate Logan (Joe Hammerstone...what a cool last name!), Johnny is being bullied by just about everyone he meets. Johnny wants to be a woman, and is referred to as "she" often enough. (S)he decides they want to work at the local sandwich shop run by jerk Jeff (Kevin Stroup), but keeps getting thrown out of the place because they only hire females. Johnny tries dressing up like a girl, but he isn't very good at it, and is humiliated and beaten up. Hurt, he goes to the house of one of the sandwich shop's employees (a yummy Katie Deerest), and she shows him some kindness (after abusing him earlier in the film). However, Johnny's life is one giant complication, and at the end of the film, he commits the biggest complication of them all.

Writer/director Trevor Juenger does not let his Midwest location stop him from making a nightmarish little film (I live in North Dakota, and if I had a nickel for every "artist" who complained their chosen home in flyover country was all that was holding them back, I could retire from my "real" job, and review movies full-time). The short film is literally dark, and Juenger somehow got his cast to go through some pretty tough scenes. The three main performers deserve praise for completely throwing themselves into Juenger's vision. This is an experimental film, but I never got any sense of smugness that I have seen in several other underground films. Juenger tells his story his way, and the viewer eventually accepts Johnny's lot in life. We may not understand why he puts himself into situations that we know will end badly, that is simply what he does.

Williams is very good in a role I am not sure other actors would have taken. Likewise with Hammerstone. Deerest is great, although I wish Juenger would have fleshed out all three characters a bit more, even if the story is not your average linear screenplay. Johnny's warped conscience seems to be portrayed by his pet rabbit, who warns him that what he is doing to himself is wrong. This is not a "Donnie Darko" man in a rabbit suit, but an actual rabbit with the voice of Carrie Lax, and these scenes are both uncomfortable and creepy. The music score is also good and off-putting (especially the opening scene), and the dank cinematography is a bit grainy and sometimes blurry.

This is only Juenger's second directorial effort, but with "Johnny Be Gone" I think he might secure a place in the underground film making world (I hope this is making the rounds on the festival circuit). This is definitely one of the weirdest films I have seen so far this year, and I don't know if anyone can top it! (* * * *) out of five stars.