A study of alienated people who fill their lives with sexual fantasies, "Dear Pillow" is a striking debut for Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughan. Pic plays in the uncomfortable zone of adult and teen sex and attains a voice of its own. The film's daring qualities will turn off mainstream indie distribs, but might draw adventurous buyers.

A correction was made to this review on Feb. 19, 2004.

A study of lonely, alienated people in bland apartment complexes who fill their empty lives with sexual fantasies and pornography, “Dear Pillow” is a striking debut for Austin filmmakers Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughn. Pic plays in the same uncomfortable, intersecting zone of adult and teen sex as the work of Larry Clark and Todd Solondz, and while it may end too abruptly, it nevertheless attains a voice of its own — cool, observant yet suffused with sadness. The film’s best, most daring qualities will turn off mainstream indie distribs, but might draw more adventurous buyers.

Preem at Slamdance completed an unexpected theme at this year’s fest of a fascination with porn. However, unlike other visually explicit offerings, “Dear Pillow” concerns characters who read, talk and write about sex but never actualy do it.

Poyser (as writer and director) and Vaughn (as producer, lenser and editor) portray a microcosm of lonely, directionless, obsessed people, starting with a man at home reading an edition of porn-letter rag “Dear Pillow,” with the story he’s reading then spoken in v.o. by Dusty (Gary Chason), whose observations of a young bag-boy at a supermarket have inspired him to dash home and bang out the “Dear Pillow” letter. Meanwhile, Wes (Rusty Kelley), the bag-boy himself, has his own adolescent fantasieswhich he relates in v.o. while listening in on radio frequencies to the libidinous chatter of two adults.

Wes lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his dad (Cory Criswell). His “bedroom” is a tiny space off the living room and kitchen which he half-covers with a makeshift curtain to give the illusion of privacy.

Wes and Dusty live in the same apartment complex, and Wes, noticing Dusty observing him, assumes the much older man is gay. One day, spotting an envelope containing a paycheck, for Dusty, Wes connects it with the publisher of the bondage books his dad hides in a bedroom cabinet. Wes confronts Dusty, thinking he is perverted, but then Wes becomes interested in the letters Dusty writes for “Dear Pillow.”

The development of the relationship is at once utterly natural and most unsettling, as Dusty and Wes matter-of-factly share stories of sexual perversions.

The introduction of the property’s landlady Lorna (Viviane Vives), first all business, then revealed as another consumer of porn, spins things into a direction that auger lewdness in the extreme.

But Poyser and Vaughn are less interested in shock value than considering the various inappropriate ways in which ideas of sex are communicated by adults to the young — ranging from the parties Wes, Dusty and Lorna have that seem to foreshadow a menage a trois, to Wes’ dad, suspicious something is going on with the neighbors, wanting to distract his son by taking him to a strip club on his 18th birthday.

Non-pro Kelley puts across an unselfconscious portrayal of an unsure and unformed teen, borne out superbly in a finale intriguing for its open-ended uncertainty. (Although, to be sure, pic feels short by at least two scenes.)

Chason’s Dusty is the picture of an aging, lonely figure looking for friendship — even if his agenda appears to be making a vid starring Wes and Lorna. Criswell is very good as a confused father.

Vid lensing in 24p is outstanding, with camera coverage and editing sharp, engaging and intelligent. The everyday American setting (in Austin) is carefully realized, making its own strong but subtle point.

Dear Pillow

Production

A Switchfilm presentation in association with Barcelona Films/Duplass Brothers Prods./Muon Films. Produced by Jacob Vaughan. Executive producer, Ken Murphy. Directed, written by Bryan Poyser.

Crew

Camera (color, 24p DV), Jacob Vaughan; editor, Vaughan; music, Jeff McLaughlin; production designer, Leslie Milligan; sound, Martin McCreadie; sound designer, Tom Hammond; supervising sound editors, Justin Hennard, Tim Young; line producer, Carla Campbell; associate producers, Viviane Vives, T.E. Kolenda, Russell Kane, Duncan Montgomery, Ronald Francavilla. Reviewed on videotape, Los Angeles, Feb. 10, 2004. (In Slamdance Film Festival -- - competing.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Wes - Rusty Kelley Dusty - Gary Chason Lorna - Viviane Vives Dad - Cory Criswell Nick - John Erler
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