“Bobby G. Can’t Swim” reminds you what a great independent film can accomplish. Gutsy, unconventional, bursting with raw urban energy, this surprisingly suspenseful drama portrays New York Hell’s Kitchen residents whose lives are governed by the immutable circumstances of their tawdry existence. Pic heralds the arrival of a bold new talent in actor-writer-director John-Luke Montias. While further festival appearances will generate attention and laurels, it’s just a matter of time before the film is snatched up by a savvy distributor, ideally one who can give it the special handling it deserves.
Bobby Grace (Montias) is a small-time coke dealer with a good heart. His days consist of casual encounters with an array of lowlife neighborhood characters: his Puerto Rican prostitute girlfriend, Lucy (Susan Mitchell), a local blind man who supports himself selling found objects (Milton Norman) and Bobby’s high-strung drug supplier (Vincent Vega). They’re all dirt-poor and trapped in dead-end lives, but determined to make a buck any way they can. Despite the apparent misery of their Hell’s Kitchen milieu, the characters remain stoically optimistic. Even Bobby, constantly trying to evade a pair of undercover cops determined to nail him, lives by his wits and maintains his sense of humor.
When a Gotham yuppie approaches Bobby to buy a kilo of cocaine, it looks as if his rough days may be over. Planning to skim some cash off the top, he’ll make a tidy profit and perhaps leave the business. But the client is skittish and the plan goes awry, forcing Bobby to produce the merchandise before receiving the cash. Events snowball disastrously, and suddenly what Bobby had envisioned as the opportunity of a lifetime begins to look like the biggest mistake he has ever made. Still, Montias has some surprises in store that propel the second half of the film at a compelling pace.
Montias takes a consierably long time to set up things by introducing characters and locales and subtly inserting plants that will pay off later. That exposition, though never plodding, could stand to lose a few minutes. Still, the second half is well worth the wait. At the 46-minute mark, the pieces of the puzzle that Montias seems to have tossed out haphazardly begin to come together with remarkable precision, and the action accelerates as if infused with spontaneous energy.
Despite fate’s forceful presence here, the film is more informed by a capricious vitality than by a noir nihilism. George Gibson’s edgy, hand-held camerawork and unusual choices — like opening a scene with a detailed close-up rather than an establishing shot — reinforce the whimsical spirit of Montias’ vision. In that way, and because of the vigor and charisma of his performance, this film recalls the early work of another Jean-Luc. It would be fruitless and premature to push comparisons to Godard’s “Breathless,” but if nothing else, “Bobby G.” teems with a similar kind of urban vibrancy and an upbeat, impulsive energy despite the bleak circumstances imposed on its characters.
Paradoxically, “Bobby G. Can’t Swim” invites superlatives precisely because it seems such an unlikely candidate for high praise. But this inconspicuous little indie is a remarkably accomplished first film. Full of contradictions, it’s a picture whose apparent simplicity belies its intricate plotting and whose seeming ordinariness gives way to a work of striking originality.