“Picaresque” has become something of a dirty word in indie film, as it’s so often invoked as a euphemism for disjointed snoozefests that arrogantly refuse to connect plot points. So it’s refreshing to be able to apply the term positively to Matthew Bissonnette’s “Passenger Side,” a sly slice-of-life that starts as a random string of events, then moves obliquely but purposefully toward a poignant epiphany. Pic makes a few missteps and might be a hard sell outside fests and cable, but it nonetheless showcases an original young filmmaking talent coming into his own.
“Passenger Side” is deceptively insular: Despite taking place within a single day and never leaving the Los Angeles metropolitan area, it still manages to be a satisfying road movie. Likewise, though the action never advances beyond scenes of people driving, talking and talking while driving, it still manages to calmly ratchet up the stakes in ways that don’t become apparent until the very end.
From the first sound of the film, a ringing telephone that continues unanswered for well over a minute, it’s clear the narrative is in no hurry to get going. The telephone belongs to protagonist Michael (Adam Scott, who looks strikingly like Tom Cruise’s disheveled hipster cousin), a thirtysomething novelist and die-hard technophobe who eschews cell phones, listens to cassettes, watches a black-and-white TV set and still reads print newspapers. The caller is his estranged, car-less younger brother Tobey (the helmer’s brother Joel Bissonnette), a recovering addict who implores Michael for a ride.
The ride turns out to be an all-day journey across L.A. to meet with an assortment of strange characters (a tranny prostitute, a desert-rat clairvoyant and a Canadian-hating gas station attendant, to name just a few) for unexplained reasons. The siblings share a seemingly genetic propensity for deadpan riffing, and it’s not until well into the film that they bother to discuss what exactly Tobey is doing, choosing instead to discourse at length about hockey, the consolations of fiction and the sexual desirability of various Bush administration officials.
Though the brothers’ exchanges threaten to veer into smarmy (as well as boring) territory in the early scenes, it eventually becomes clear that the awkwardness of the dialogue is intentional, and the slow evolution from arch repartee to meaningful discussion is among the many subtle developments on which the film hinges. Their talk allows for a slow drip of relevant details that begin to fit together in the final 20 minutes, when one realizes, with some surprise, that the film actually had a carefully developed story after all.
Bissonnette explores a number of interesting techniques throughout, including some creative transitions, and documents a rare version of Los Angeles on film that should actually be recognizable to those who live there. Thanks to music supervisor Mac McCaughan (frontman for indie rock heroes Superchunk), the film’s soundtrack boasts a number of songs that would seem to be far outside its budgetary range, and it makes very good use of them.