A truly oddball venture --- a romantic drama shot and set in the Netherlands, made by African-American filmmakers --- Darien Sills-Evans' "X-Patriots" generates interest for its novelty value alone. But there's something more to this ambitious debut feature, namely, a highly engaging romance that keeps pic afloat through turbulent waters.
A truly oddball venture — a romantic drama shot and set in the Netherlands, made by African-American filmmakers working on a shoestring budget with a mixed cast of Yanks and locals — Darien Sills-Evans’ “X-Patriots” generates interest for its novelty value alone. But there’s something more to this ambitious debut feature, namely, a highly engaging romance that keeps pic afloat through turbulent waters. “X-Patriots” may be a mixed bag, but it’s also one of the few films to focus on the experiences of black Americans living abroad. It’s a breath of fresh air on an American indie fest circuit littered with so many cookie-cutter characters and settings. More fest exposure is deserved, though pic’s sheer unconventionality in comparison to most product marketed to black auds may keep likeliest distribs at bay.
Everything about “X-Patriots” is a bit off the beaten path. There’s the Dutch setting, which frees the pic from the New York and L.A. milieus so common in low-budget relationship pics. But the characters themselves also have a vibrancy. The film’s male leads, both black, allegedly are Brooklyn-born, but they talk and act more like Woody Allen’s neurotic Manhattanites.
We first meet Manny (Bobby Lyle), an aspiring actor now living in the Hague with his Dutch wife Elia (Natalie Edwardes) and barely making ends meet with a job as an acting teacher. Inspired to stage a one-man show as a way of jumpstarting his career, he convinces former roommate and struggling screenwriter Dexter (Sills-Evans) to fly from New York and work as his collaborator. Once pic has its basic setup in place, however, it leaves contrivances aside to focus on the relationships between characters.
The thing that’s most remarkable about “X-Patriots” early on is its colorblindness with respect to Manny and Elia’s relationship, which the movie and the couple treat as nothing unusual. So it’s particularly disappointing when, just to keep things moving forward, Dexter chides Manny for not being a true black man because he sleeps with white women. It’s a hot-button issue employed crassly, when in fact there are much better uses of the film’s time.
It’s the romance that develops between Dexter and the fiery, mixed-race Simone (Chimene van Oosterhout) that breathes new life into things. Once they meet, it’s suddenly as if there are two films going on: the one delicate, charming and well written, with a lovemaking scene scored to Nina Simone singing “Ne Me Quitte Pas” that’s truly sexy; the other a laborious mess that feels like a series of improvisational acting-workshop scenes that should have stayed in the workshop.
There’s a schism in the performances, too. Sills-Evans is sheepishly charming and van Oosterhout has the force of a gathering storm; Lyle and Edwardes are less effective, largely because their conflicts seem so forced and ill motivated. After a while, even the quality of the photography and production values seems inferior in the Manny-Elia scenes. If this is a case of a tyro hyphenate biting off more than he can chew, at least Sills-Evans has had the good sense to give himself all the best-executed moments.
The Dexter-Simone relationship arc is, regrettably, not entirely free of the trite racial polemicizing that degrades the rest of the film, though Sills-Evans and van Oosterhout have more than enough chemistry to carry the day.
Eventually, though, “X-Patriots” runs out of ideas. It doesn’t know how to end, so Sills-Evans stages a weak redemption scene between Manny and Elia during which the film pretty much bottoms out. (Staying true to its schizophrenic nature, however, the sequence just before that, which gives closure to Dexter and Simone, may be the film’s most charming.)
Crisply photographed in Super 16mm by Michael Simmonds on attractive Dutch locations, pic’s look always belies its minimal resources.