Would-be dark comedy "Expiration Date" strains for every drop of charm it can wring from its overly precious tale about a young man awaiting his impending demise by a milk truck. Results are none too fresh, if not exactly sour, thanks to a handful of sympathetic performances. Pic is unlikely to draw many more auds in limited commercial release than it did on the fest circuit.

Most memorable for its unique Native American-inflected Seattle milieu, would-be dark comedy “Expiration Date” strains for every drop of charm it can wring from its overly precious tale about a young man awaiting his impending demise by a milk truck. Results are none too fresh, if not exactly sour, thanks to a handful of sympathetic performances. Pic opens today in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle and is unlikely to draw many more auds in limited commercial release than it did on the fest circuit.

Narrative’s “The Princess Bride”-style bookending device has a voluble old man (vet Native American thesp Ned Romero) striking up a conversation with a sullen boy (Nakotah LaRance) at a bus stop near their Indian reservation. The boy, who has run away from home, reluctantly agrees to hear a story the old man is itching to tellhim.

So begins the tale of Charlie Silvercloud III (Robert Guthrie), a young man of Native descent now living in Seattle. As seen in flashback, Charlie’s father and grandfather before him (both also played by Guthrie) both died after being run over by milk trucks on their 25th birthdays. Charlie is now just eight days from his own quarter-century milestone and more or less resigned to his fate.

While shopping for his funeral, Charlie buys a discounted casket, to the chagrin of a girl named Bessie Smith (Sascha Knopf) who had wanted the coffin for her terminally ill mother. Bessie retaliates by spray-painting corpse outlines outside Charlie’s door and stealing his suit from the cleaners — in short, the kind of behavior that will inevitably lead to romance.

Rick Stevenson’s screenplay (which he also directed) contrives to have Charlie conclude that Bessie, not her mother, is near death, inspiring him to pursue her even as he keeps the Silvercloud family curse a secret.

With its depressive protagonist, woozy central romance, intimations of mortality and aggressively quirky supporting characters boasting names like Arnold the Addict (Brandon Whitehead) and Wild William (David Keith), pic is often reminiscent of “Garden State.”

Like that excessively cute film, “Expiration Date” is too stringy and disjointed for its sporadic charms to amount to much. Chief running gag, in which Charlie is stalked by a battalion of milk trucks, quickly wears out its welcome, especially since a daily countdown regularly reminds us that he still has a few days to live.

Lessons about living life to the fullest, even in the face of adversity, are expressed as the desire to “go down dancing” — a sentiment illustrated beautifully in a scene of Native American dance that becomes the film’s centerpiece. References to Charlie’s culture are otherwise subtle, and sometimes put across with affectionate humor.

Guthrie grounds the picture as best he can as the impassive hero, who reacts to almost every situation with silent bemusement. Knopf’s perf charms and grates in equal measure, as it’s not clear whether her character is supposed to be a girl-next-door type or a flailing neurotic. Dee Wallace Stone, the cast’s most recognizable face, sparkles with feeling as Charlie’s loving but understandably paranoid mother.

Bruce Worrall’s cinematography bursts with color, reflecting the story’s essential optimism where a grimmer palette might have accentuated its morose tone. Seattle locales and a steady stream of pop tunes from local bands lend the pic a highly specific flavor, though constant background shots of the Space Needle verge on obvious.

Expiration Date

Production

A Roadkill Prods. release of a Roadkill Prods. production. Produced by John Forsen, Rick Stevenson. Executive producers, David Fulton, Patrice Auld. Directed, written by Rick Stevenson.

Crew

Camera (color), Bruce Worrall; editor, Mark Fulton; music, BC Smith; music supervisors, David Meinert, Nathan Walker; production designer, Charlie Armstrong; art director, Merlin Armstrong; set decorator, Jeanne Cavenaugh; costume designer, Ron Leamon; sound, Stephen C. Jones, Elijah Lawson; sound designer, Mike McAuliffe; stunt coordinator, Art Hickman; line producer, Chris Roberts; associate producers, Matthew Blecha, Bruce Hosford, Nicola Opdycke; assistant director, Jennifer Roth; casting, Steve Salamunovich. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, Sept. 12, 2006. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Charlie Silvercloud - Robert Guthrie Bessie Smith - Sascha Knopf Lucille Silvercloud - Dee Wallace Stone Wild William - David Keith Arnold the Addict - Brandon Whitehead Lazar - Ben Ratner Old Native Man - Ned Romero Young Native Boy - Nakotah LaRance

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