Defiantly minimalist, David Fenster’s “Trona” marks a striking feature debut by a filmmaker with a taste for moribund humor and the ironies of the American Dream. Tracking the so-called Man With the Mustache (played with Keatonesque deadpan by David Nordstrom) from an innocuous business trip to a bizarre detour into a totally new life in the California desert, Fenster’s film intrigues with its use of big physical space and bigger narrative gaps. It’s already earned a rep at high-end fests like Vienna and Buenos Aires, though commercial prospects appear slight.
The noisy moaning and grinding from a neighboring motel room distracts the Man in an amusing opening scene, and he finds his interest comically interrupted by a call from his (off-screen) wife about his drinking habit. With few words expressed, and actions speaking louder, a portrait emerges of a youngish salesman in a personal and professional rut, wanting a way out.
From being a plane passenger, he’s suddenly on the ground in what looks like one of Western helmer Budd Boetticher’s favorite east-of-Sierras desert locales, with suitcase in hand and looking absurdly out of place. Pic blends a canny sense of Keaton with Antonioni, as the guy soon is parted from his suit and briefcase, left to wander around in his underwear until he sees the curious (and never ID’d) burg of Trona.
Pic evolves from comedy into a fable of a person reconstructing his life — first, by scrounging up clothes and food, and eventually finding an occupation as the owner of a junkyard. Fenster films the yard as a depository of Western civilization, with shards of cars, literature and tools allowing him to live with loads of time to kill — including ogling a European tourist couple having sex in the yard. And the filmmaker toys with audience expectations to the end.
Although Fenster made “Trona” as his CalArts thesis pic, he shows a disciplined and experienced knack for cutting. Less attentive and impatient auds will read the general minimalist approach as mere nothingness, but that would be overlooking a keen artistic sensitivity to the story’s extremely spacious place and a fun desire to link early silent comedy with modernist cinema.
Production package, done almost entirely by Fenster himself, is exceptionally pro on a tiny budget. Town of Trona itself, once a company town and always one of the strangest California communities, has never been better documented.