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Messy lives abound in "Chronic Town," tyro director Tom Hines and writer Michael Kamsky's shaggy movie about a frustrated, aimless Alaska taxi driver who finds that love and loss may be a bit more potent than Great North weed.

Messy lives abound in “Chronic Town,” tyro director Tom Hines and writer Michael Kamsky’s shaggy movie about a frustrated, aimless Alaska taxi driver who finds that love and loss may be a bit more potent than Great North weed. Like a Richard Ford story lost in a cloud of pot smoke, pic gets stuck in place for passages, only to pick itself up, dust itself off and start all over again, with JR Bourne’s thoughtful lead perf in early Jeff Bridges mode. Theatrical road could be rough for this bona fide indie, but foreign sales and vid munchies look good.

The kind of single guy whose morning wake-up routine means rolling out of bed and dashing to the bathroom to throw up the previous night’s booze, Truman (Bourne) adopts a hardened exterior under his handle, “the Ice Raider.” A cabbie who keeps busy while barking back at his dispatcher, lovingly nicknamed “Blow Job” (Dan Butler, first heard, later seen), Truman is fundamentally a good guy, kindly toward some regular rides who stagger out of bars in the morning, and interested — but not too interested — in moody stripper Eleanor (Emily Wagner).

Truman is hit hard when would-be writer g.f. Emily (Stacy Edwards) dumps him — and for a jerk like Newton (Robert Peters), at that. Burly pal Farraday (Jeffrey Scott Jensen, as Alaskan as a grizzly) can’t hope to console his buddy, and after an all-nighter at the bar and a hit of acid, Truman cuts his wrists.

Set in an ultra-mellow psychiatric hospital where Truman recovers, chills out and attends half-funny/half-not group sessions care of a fatherly shrink (Garry Marshall), midsection tends to drag and meander in ways the film is not quite able to control. Still, it’s here that Kamsky’s script plants the seeds for third-act dramatic explosions not even the most prescient viewer will see coming. It’s also here where Truman makes a real connection with Eleanor.

“Chronic Town” revives as an interesting character study once Truman’s back out in the world, eschewing the expected direction that he would clean up his act. Far from it: Pic’s eventual portrait of Truman, Farraday, Eleanor and Blow Job living in the perma-cold without much to do, but with plenty to smoke, exudes observed experience.

Final third-act turn, involving a stunning cameo perf by Paul Dooley as Eleanor’s sad, self-exiled father, is particularly unexpected after all the mellowness.

The actors, never once evoking pity, understand but don’t wallow in their characters’ collective sense of being losers in the middle of nowhere. Alice Drummond’s performance as an elderly hospital patient is especially powerful.

Just looking at the pic long enough is sufficient to induce chills, due to subdued, stripped-down lensing by Yiannis Samaras, with editor Clay Zimmerman administering a strong hand in latter sections.

Chronic Town

Production

A Grey Jumper production. Produced by Lauri LaBeau, David Scharf. Executive producers, Michael Peterson, Tim Farley. Co-producer, Maya Salganek. Directed by Tom Hines. Screenplay, Michael Kamsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Yiannis Samaras; editor, Clay Zimmerman; music, Ryan Raddatz; music supervisor, Brian Sapp; production designer, Tommy Estridge; costume designer, Wendy Willis; sound (stereo), Marcus Ricaud; supervising sound editor, Todd Toon; re-recording mixer, Gabriel Guy; associate producer, Sean Vawter; assistant director, Angela Mixan. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, April 3, 2008. (In Method Fest, Sundance Film Festival -- Spectrum.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

JR Bourne, Emily Wagner, Jeffrey Scott Jensen, Alice Drummond, Dan Butler, Paul Dooley, Garry Marshall, Lin Shaye, Stacy Edwards, Robert Peters, Ian Gregory, Christine Lakin, Rowan Joseph, Chris Wynne.
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