HOUSTON–Novice writer-director Chris Johnstone makes a small but commendable splash with “Buffalo Jump,” a witty and well-observed indie effort that should play well on fest circuit and in specialized urban markets. Pic recalls the low-key humor and insight of another no-frills debut, John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus Seven.”
Plot deals with two thirtysomething wanderers, Nick (Nicholas Backlund) and Leigh (Catherine Fogarty), who used to co-star as teens on a 1970s sitcom, “Heaven Help Poppa.”
Fleeing the cable-TV reruns of their show, they aimlessly drive from town to town with their self-appointed traveling companion, Maryland (Mary Elizabeth Keller), who has become Leigh’s lover.
Nick, who was romantically attached to Leigh during the run of their series, is the outspoken smart-aleck of the trio. But when the wanderers opt to settle in a small Virginia fishing village, it is Nick who, to his great surprise, immediately warms to the place.
Indeed, after finding a friend in an equally loquacious fisherman (Wayne Haycox) and a lover in a free-spirited, crab-shooting eccentric (Pamela Stewart) , Nick decides he wants to settle down and live off his residuals.
Old wounds are opened up when the trio learns of another sitcom co-star’s death. This cues the pic’s most technically and dramatically impressive scene, a long, continuous shot of Nick and Leigh dredging up the past while walking along a beach. Here, the melancholy undercurrents reach flood level, and pic is the better for it.
“Buffalo Jump” abounds in quirky humor and engaging bit-player riffs. That these elements are held together by just a thin wisp of a plot does not hurt all that much. There is more mood than matter here, but that mood is skillfully, playfully developed. More important, the characters are sufficiently realized to sustain audience sympathy and curiosity.
Lead performances, especially those by Backlund and Stewart, are first-rate. Also worth noting is Tobias Baker as an improbably transplanted Englishman who’s briefly attached to Stewart, and who happens to be a big “Heaven Help Poppa” fan.
Perhaps because of financial limitations, “Buffalo Jump” doesn’t include clips from the fictional sitcom that might have helped illuminate the characters’ current bitterness about the show. Otherwise, pic makes the most of a small budget. Blow-up to 35mm from Super-16mm is very good.