Philadelphia’s colorful Mummers’ Parade bookends an unsentimentalized portrait of 21st-century divorce in “The New Year Parade.” Winner of the Slamdance grand jury prize, Tom Quinn’s first feature combines non-professional actors with hundreds of actual marching band participants to yield an almost documentary-like look at a family left reeling after the parents separate. Quinn, who hails from the emerging “Phillywood” independent scene, possesses a strong artistic sensibility and the confidence to build his story around intimate, sometimes mundane life moments as opposed to melodrama. Interest will be strongest locally, but fest play looks promising for this high-integrity project.
Set over the course of a year (and painstakingly assembled over four), pic opens with the South Philadelphia String Band learning they’ve placed an unimpressive 13th at the annual parade. In the 12 months it takes the marching club to pull itself together for the next show, team captain Mike McMonogul (Andrew Conway) slowly watches his own family drift apart. Eldest son Jack (Greg Lyons) is best equipped to handle the split, watching out for 16-year-old Kat (Jennifer-Lynn Welsh) as best he can.
When fellow mummers gossip about his mother’s infidelities (the reason for the divorce) within earshot of his sister, Jack doesn’t hesitate to pick a fight. But he’s also distracted with a budding relationship of his own, and Kat doesn’t trust his new girlfriend (Irene Longshore) enough to confide her own dating issues. The boy for Kat is clearly her A.V. Club partner Curtis (Tobias Segal), but she’s stuck in an unhealthy relationship with a school hockey star (Paul Blackway), who pressures her to take the pill so they can have sex.
Because Quinn encouraged his actors to improvise, sometimes recording hours of footage to be condensed into a short scene, the narrative style takes some getting used to at first. Grocery shopping or band practice are weighted as equally as heated arguments and sex scenes, providing an unusually well-rounded sense of character even as it makes for a rather inelegant flow. Scenes don’t have obvious in and out points, but instead seem sampled from lives that continue when the cameras stop rolling.
The most important dramatic moments are all here, as when Kat’s boyfriend tries to get fresh or Jack, feeling distanced from his father and determined to win the next parade, approaches a rival team about playing for them. But the truly unforgettable scenes are either entirely silent (signing the divorce papers) or totally improvised (in one, a real band member tells a story about how a bystander randomly gave him a photo of his father as a child, a beautiful allegory for the film’s family-first themes). Life isn’t tidy, the movie reminds us, with the ripples of the McMonogul divorce echoing as betrayal and distrust in all the relationships it touches.
Handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting enhance the pic’s kitchen-sink realism. If the final score is anywhere near as effective as the temp tracks featured in the Slamdance cut, the soundtrack could be a must-own (a la “Once”).