Review: ‘Various Positions’

A thoughtful and ingratiating seriocomedy, Vancouverite Ori Kowarsky's first feature "Various Positions" goes awry in the last half-hour, as script's intended cathartic explosions go off with a whimper.

A thoughtful and ingratiating seriocomedy, Vancouverite Ori Kowarsky’s first feature “Various Positions” goes awry in the last half-hour, as script’s intended cathartic explosions go off with a whimper. Until then, however, tale of a shy collegian’s clash with his Orthodox Jewish family over romance with a shiksa classmate is understatedly winning. Perhaps too modest for theatrical pickup, technically smooth low-budgeter (unnoticeably shot in high-def video before 35mm transfer) is solid tube fare, with select home-format sales possible.

Cute but shy and a tad goofy, university student Josh (Tygh Runyan of “K-19: The Widowmaker” and “15 Minutes”) spends most of his non-study time dutifully attending to the expectations of his nearby family. There’s no love lacking in relations with dad (L. Harvey Gold), Israeli emigre mom (Marie Stillin) or little brother Tzvi (Michael Suchanek), who’s already on the rabbinical track — just as Josh follows his father’s wishes by prepping for law school. Still, the apron strings seem pulled a little tighter than most college kids could withstand; his only social outlet seems to be hanging with roommate Ian (Terry Chen).

That changes when the beauteous Cheryth (Carly Pope of NBC serial “Popular”) moves in across the dorm hall. He’s guileless, but she’s flirty enough for both of them, and soon they’re an item. But Josh is reluctant to inform his folks — the issue of dating a non-Jew (Cheryth is half-Jewish by birth, but her estranged parents imbued no particular belief system) never came up before. Worst-case fears are realized when she finally meets them over a Passover Seder dinner. Dad mercilessly grills her about religious matters, and Tzvi announces he’s not sure he can sit at ceremonial table with a non-observant Jew, let alone a goy.

Wedge driven between the two lovers sparks petty, manipulative behavior from Cheryth and rebellious resentment toward the home front from Josh.

Climactic fractures seem slapdash after a simple but well-handled buildup. Suddenly Cheryth is found participating in a destructive fantasy-costumed protest against politically incorrect university investment; sequence comes out of nowhere and feels stylistically incongruous. Then she simply disappears, leaving Josh to overspeechify a less-than-fully-credible break from the family.

A major problem in pic’s taking the sacred-vs.-secular, family-vs.-love to melodramatic endpoint (complete with the dreaded line “I have no son!”) is fact that as written and played, Cheryth doesn’t ultimately seem worth Josh’s devotion or sacrifice. Pope cuts a glamorous figure too well-dressed for campus life, though it isn’t entirely her fault that her character’s insecurity problems, in the end, seem strictly of the poor-little-rich-girl stripe, certainly in contrast to protag’s serious dilemmas.

Runyan (who also co-composed the nicely spectral score) carries much of the feature with bumbling, puppyish charm, though he copes with last reel’s clutter by simply becoming more dazed. Gold, Stillin and young Suchanek make strong impressions as the well-meaning but rigid Szchevisky clan.

Shot in British Columbia, pic belies modest resources in most departments, with particular credit due d.p. Bob Aschmann for shooting an HD feature that doesn’t look it.

Various Positions

Canada

Production

A Various Producers production in association with Telefilm Canada, BC Film and CanWest Western Independent Producers Fund. Produced by Karen Powell, Lori Roth. Directed, written by Ori Kowarsky.

Crew

Camera (color, Hi Def video to 35mm), Bob Aschmann; editor, Ross Weber; music, Tygh Runyan, Andrew Hefst, Stefan Udell, Ida Nilsen, Damon Henry; production designer, Erik Whittaker; art director, Carl Whittaker; sound mixer (Dolby Surround); assistant director, Sheila Carpenter; casting, Jennifer Page. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Panorama Canada), Aug. 24, 2002. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Josh Szchevisky - Tygh Runyan Cheryth Bleyn - Carly Pope Mr. Szchevisky - L. Harvey Gold Mr. Szchevisky - Marie Stillin Tzvi Szchevisky - Michael Suchanek Ian - Terry Chen
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