In “Seven and a Match,” friends don’t let friends burn down houses, but such a fateful incendiary decision isn’t the animating idea in writer-director Derek Simonds’ script. Firmly set in the American indie tradition of characters trumping plot, this group portrait shows Yalie alums finding themselves at emotional crossroads in their late 20s. The basics are hardly new, but Simonds displays the same kind of sense of crowd-pleasing dialogue and human-scale drama that drew attention to Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count On Me” last year. Pic could tally modest numbers in domestic release and earn a long life on indie-oriented cable.
Like the vaguely similar “The Big Chill,” this reunion drama is considerably buttressed by a confident cast, in this case one of virtual unknowns except for Heather Donahue, in her most notable appearance since “The Blair Witch Project.” Because of the actors and Simonds’ easy way with talk, the stress is away from the visuals — which is fortunate, since the hi-def-shot feature (screened in an untimed film transfer print) generally serves up poor contrasts, dim color range and far inferior results to shooting on film.
Lonely Ellie (Tina Holmes) and her ultra-shy roomie Tim (Daniel Serafini-Sauli) quickly tidy up their coastal Maine abode for the arrival of her college pals, some of whom she hasn’t seen much since graduating more than five years ago. Struggling actor Sid (Eion Bailey) and gay writer Peter (Adam Scott) arrive, and with acerbic fashion mag editor Whit (Donahue), they form a triumvirate of cynical New York humor, the MTV-era equivalent of a hydra-headed Dorothy Parker. By contrast, Ellie’s closest friend Blair (Petra Wright) brings along her quiet, down-to-earth b.f. Matthew (Devon Gummersall).
Ellie confides to Blair that her parents, who both died in a car crash two years ago, were on the verge of bankruptcy after years of a heady lifestyle. Meanwhile, Ellie has lost her job as a counselor at a center for disabled kids. The tension built here stems from how her dilemma is only of a part with those around her, and Simonds constructs this in careful, small terraces rather than huge, melodramatic gestures.
What emerges is that the seven alums have barely tolerated each other through the years, and when Ellie suggests that they help her torch the house for the insurance money, it unleashes further unexplored emotions between them.
Simonds’ script is especially adept at crafting distinctly individual characters who generally sound not derived from past movie types. For example, a certain sadness wells up inside Donahue’s caustic Whit, who is dealing with her own offscreen romantic crisis, that is the very model of the well-rounded character and makes her more akin to Ellie than first appearances suggest. Since the prospect of Ellie actually following through with arson isn’t likely from a number of perspectives — not least the production expense of actually staging a five-alarm fire — the drama’s focus on relationships rather than plot points is both apt and shrewd.
As a helmer, Simonds is neither inspired nor incompetent in where he places his camera, and it’s clear that his top priority is to serve his script and allow thesps as much creative breathing room as possible. Bailey knows how far to push and not overplay things as the highly conflicted Sid, giving space for Donahue and Scott to have fun as the pic’s other wags. Wright and Gummersall show a fine understanding of subtext, though Holmes tends to underline and then, in case we didn’t get it, highlight in yellow Ellie’s vulnerabilities.
When hi-def lensing stays outdoors, pic’s image is bright and sharp; interiors are stubbornly dim, however, and no amount of print timing is likely to markedly improve the image. The primary house setting, however, is so evocative that it becomes a character all its own.