In the microbudget Brooklyn-set indie “Gabi on the Roof in July,” 20-year-old “post-flux feminist” Gabi descends like a whirlwind upon her older brother for the summer, upsetting the struggling artist’s already precarious existence and affecting everyone in his circle. Created Mike Leigh-style through intensive rehearsals that collectively reworked the initial script, Lawrence Michael Levine’s pic initially registers as meandering and disjointed enough to qualify as mumblecore. But remarkably, the film gradually, effectively coheres, building to a climax at once unexpected yet integral to what has transpired before. “Gabi” may rack up converts to bare-bones, improv-style cinema in limited release.
Pic begins in total chaos, intercutting two apparently disconnected scenes, each joined in medias res. While Sam (helmer Levine) and his girlfriend Madeline (Brooke Bloom) entertain a couple for dinner, Sam’s sister Gabi (Sophia Takal) arrives in town and waits in vain for Sam to pick her up. She finally enters his unlocked apartment, only to find a naked guy passed out in the bathtub.
Not that nudity bothers Gabi — she frequently walks around naked, either as social provocation or simply to fluster her suddenly judgmental, patriarchal brother. Their earlier misconnection started the siblings’ reunion off on the wrong note, and Sam’s increasing defensiveness only encourages Gabi to wax more outrageous. Underlying the strain in their relationship is their father’s flaunted infidelity and the breakup of their parents’ marriage.
Gabi and Sam face off over sex (Gabi arrives with a lesbian “wife” in tow and embarks on a campaign to lose her virginity to one of Sam’s less reputable friends) and argue over summer jobs (as Sam insists on securing a gallery gig for Gabi, which she doesn’t want and quickly sabotages). The two especially disagree about the nature of art: Gabi disdains Sam’s hanging canvases, opting to incorporate Art into her life — a preference that apparently requires whipped cream to be applied and licked off her nude body.
But beyond the awkward rift between him and his sister, more painful schisms open between Sam and Madeline when his old flame Chelsea (Amy Seimetz) returns from San Francisco, drawing Sam back into her orbit. Madeline doesn’t take this well, and events soon build to a crescendo of melodrama that arouses more embarrassment than compassion among the onlookers. But then, none of these characters seem overburdened with sensitivity.
Helmer Levine and his team expertly orchestrate these over-the-top theatrics within the desultory context of constant slacker chitchat, never forsaking the film’s improv vibe. Indeed, though Sam supposedly holds two jobs, all we ever see him or anyone else do is hang. This canny mixture of looseness and structure gives the film surprising momentum and allows the characters to retain ambivalence, registering as neither quirky nor realistic.