A sad-sack salesman tries to live the American dream to tragic, occasionally comic effect in the smartly executed, shoestring-budgeted DV pic "Wellness."

A sad-sack salesman tries to live the American dream to tragic, occasionally comic effect in the smartly executed, shoestring-budgeted DV pic “Wellness.” Virtual one-man band Jake Mahaffy follows up his 2004 film “War” with an astute effort that is both razor-sharp and genuinely sensitive, with a flawlessly authentic, heartbreaking performance by central thesp Jeff Clark. Mainstream auds may balk at pic’s modest origins, but cult ancillary potential offers a smart distrib an opportunity to spin gold from straw.

Pic opens with shabbily suited salesman Thomas Lindsey (Clark) precariously climbing a tree to retrieve a defunct hornets’ nest. Symbolic beginning initially appears merely odd, but as the yarn progresses, this simple image gathers resonance.

Reminiscent of John Candy’s Del Griffith in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with the comic veneer ripped off, Thomas appears to be a folksy schlub with a dull fascination with insect dwellings. Whether naive or just living in iron-clad denial, protag is desperate enough to sign away $20,000 for a shot at managerial greatness via a pyramid selling scheme for an “embargoed” product called Wellness.

Thomas has a car park meeting with Wellness company rep Paul Stubbs (Paul Mahaffy, helmer’s father), who would make the salesmen of “Glengarry Glen Ross” shake in their boots. With the explosive Paul interrupting him every step of the way, Thomas stumbles through his sales pitch, describing a miracle cure for mental, physical and spiritual ailments.

The rest of the film depicts Thomas’ efforts to acquire enough attendees for a seminar he’s presenting about the product, in a series of scenes that are painful to watch but also queasily amusing. The exact size of the Wellness scam is withheld until late in the film, but helmer Mahaffy (who also wrote, edited, produced and lensed) tips his hand early with a typically simple and eloquent piece of art direction: a pig, adorned with wings, hanging in a diner window.

Shot on DV, pic is a warts-and-all affair with some technical glitches, but also a textbook case of how a solid script and great perfs can transcend the lowest of budgets.

Clark is perfect as slippery-slope salesman Thomas. Script occasionally holds his character up for ridicule, but Clark retains aud’s sympathy, preventing Thomas’ tragedy being overwhelmed by farce. Similarly impressive is Paul Mahaffy, channeling Lawrence Tierney in “Reservoir Dogs” and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” as an angry, merciless bulldozer for whom screaming and bullying are legitimate sales techniques. Perf is both hilarious and terrifying.

Music by M. Ward is used sparingly, gently underlining helmer’s compassionate view despite the savagery of his satire.

Wellness

Production

A Handcranked Film production. (International sales: Handcranked Film, Waltham.) Produced, directed, written, edited by Jake Mahaffy.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Mahaffy; music, M. Ward; sound, Mahaffy. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 28, 2008. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Jeff Clark, Paul Mahaffy.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more