A semi-experimental symphony to the 21st-century man, director Frazer Bradshaw’s “Everything Strange and New” assembles snapshots of a carpenter’s existence, connected via introspective monologues and cacophonous swells of string music. Helmer’s feature debut provides a first glimpse at what post-recession independent cinema could look like, offering a revisionist, glass-half-empty take on the American Dream, in which its blue-collar protag attempts to understand why the wife, kids and house he signed up for haven’t brought contentment to his life. Though perfectly suited for fest play, Bradshaw’s artistic vision would take considerable critical support to connect with a broader public.
In contrast to the recent, star-heavy “Revolutionary Road,” the naturalistic pic (set in Oakland, Calif.) situates average-looking unknowns in real middle-class environs and raises uncomfortable yet timely questions for a credit-crunched nation.
Lead character Wayne (Jerry McDaniel), who works in construction to support his family, wonders why his co-workers’ marriages seem so much better than his own. Facing his routine with hangdog weariness, Wayne is soft-spoken and shy in the company of others, yet his voiceover passages show him to be an articulate, emotionally perceptive observer of the world around him. Early on, he reveals the discrepancies between the romantic future he imagined for himself when he met Beth (Beth Lisick) and the reality of what their marriage has become: Their frisky, sex-centered early days having given way to mood swings and the arrival of two sons.
Expanding on his day-job role as a cinematographer, Bradshaw composes in visual terms. Instead of crafting traditional scenes to illustrate Wayne’s situation, Bradshaw presents either a single elliptical vignette — say, a passive-aggressive argument in the kitchen, the kids watching meaningless television or Wayne dressed as a birthday-party clown — or a montage of telling visuals, contemplating the empty rooms in the house or the countless other anonymous roofs and facades in the city.
As the non-standard narrative progresses, Wayne comes to understand the distinction between his needs and desires, realizing those co-workers aren’t necessarily any better off: He catches Manny (Luis Saguar) doing cocaine during break and is caught off-guard when drinking buddy Leo (Rigo Chacon Jr.) comes on to him.
Like a fusion of the handsomely photographed meditations of Andrei Tarkovsky and the wincingly familiar explorations of the DIY generation, “Everything Strange and New” provides as close to a time-capsule record of this moment in time as film can provide today, hitting so close to home it could take years for auds to fully appreciate it.