“Phillip the Fossil” begins bluntly, with 29-year-old Phillip (Brian Hasenfus) dealing steroids to partying jocks hoping to score a night with high-school jailbait. From its seemingly irredeemable title character to the rawness of its scenes of casual sex, drug taking and group violence, the film distinguishes itself from the crop of tamer zero-budgeters that usually hail from SXSW, where it preemed last year. But the edge achieved by director-editor-producer-scribe Garth Donovan is jeopardized by overreaching for topical relevance. All in all, “Fossil,” which opens April 15 at Brooklyn’s ReRun Gastropub, stands an outside chance at wider distribution.
Old habits take their toll on the now-aging Phillip, his nightly heavy drinking, coke snorting and strip-club trolling making for increasingly tougher mornings after. Always late for his day job as foreman of a four-man landscaping crew, the hungover Phillip is impressionistically shot in quick, shaky clips intercut with lawnmowers and leaf blowers.
Our superficially happy-go-lucky protagonist, who parties with teens, is derisively referred to as “Old Guy Phillip” by the friends of Summer (Angela Pagliarulo, convincingly acting 17) who hopes to hook up with him after rebounding from b.f. Sully (J.R. Killigrew), a wannabe football player who obsessively pumps weights.
The influence of precedents like Larry Clark’s “Kids” and “Bully” permeates Donovan’s film, to its great stylistic benefit, as its scenes with large adolescent gatherings evolve organically; its lower-middle-class Massachusetts small-town setting is depicted as a mainly parent-free zone. Matt Levin’s nervous handheld camerawork best serves seemingly innocuous scenes such as a game of Whiffle ball between rivals Phillip and Sully, the jittery kineticism underlining the deep tension between the two.
The pic’s third act, however, abandons the experiential for meaningful big statements: For starters, Phillip’s Iraq War vet pal Nick (Nick Dellarocca) flies off the handle, a veritable poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder. Other intersected big subjects include gang violence, the aforementioned steroid abuse and the use of the Internet to launch smear campaigns.
After this surreal deluge of hot topics raining down on otherwise ordinary people, as well as the improbably high body count, the film’s remaining story strands — Phillip’s recovery from addiction, his ambition to open his own business and reunite with a former flame his own age (Ann Palica) — register as bathos.