Waterworks are sparse in “Donald Cried,” but there’s plenty of anxious, cringe-inducing humor to be found in writer-director-star Kris Avedisian’s comedy of discomfort. A return trip to his working-class Rhode Island birthplace produces only stress, guilt and regret for Peter (Jesse Wakeman), a Manhattan banker whose job settling the estate of his recently deceased grandmother is complicated first by the loss of his wallet, and then by a run-in with neighbor and former best friend Donald (Avedisian), who refuses to leaves him alone. Rife with awkward exchanges, absurd encounters, and an underlying sense of bitterness and shame, their ensuing saga — premiering at SXSW, and then showing in New Directors/New Films — is an amusingly squirm-inducing indie that, with the right marketing, should find its niche among connoisseurs of mortifying oddball ordeals.
Revisiting his old snow-covered stomping grounds for the first time in 20 years, Peter winds up in dire straits when he realizes he’s left his ID, cash and credit cards on the bus. After briefly meeting with Kristen (Louisa Krause), the realtor he hired to sell his grandmother’s ramshackle house — and whom he harbors a decades-old crush on, despite pretending not to remember her — Peter turns to the only place he can for help with his daily tasks: Donald. That fateful decision results in an immediately warm embrace from his old friend, a simple-minded doofus with a shaggy beard and shaggier mullet whose attic bedroom — decorated with classic-wrestling, horror-movie and heavy-metal posters, KISS action figures, and a signed pinup of a porn star’s crotch that’s Donald’s pride and joy — is a frozen-in-time shrine to their teenage heyday.
As is slowly revealed by Avedisian’s prickly script, Peter and Donald were partners in metalhead crime until Peter, for ill-defined reasons, rejected his former life, cleaned himself up, and transformed into a high-finance prig defined by his handsome overcoat, neck-strangling scarf and perpetually pinched expression. Considering Donald’s stunted-adolescent monologue about how he imagined Peter returning to town with flowing hair and veiny muscles while riding astride a mighty motorcycle, it’s not difficult to understand why Peter bolted. However, given his limited options, he reluctantly agrees to have Donald be his chauffeur — a responsibility which the man-child (who resembles the long-lost son of “American Movie’s” Mark Borchardt) readily accepts.
Donald also agrees to lend the penniless Peter some cash, and as “Donald Cried” progresses, it becomes clear that such assurances come with a catch. Exploiting Peter’s need for money, Donald proceeds to force his friend — often against his will — to spend the day with him. What ensues is a litany of embarrassments: a diner breakfast during which a run-in with a classmate quickly turns uneasy; a visit to Donald’s demeaning bowling-alley boss (Ted Arcidi); a meeting with a monotone buddy who doesn’t remember Peter fondly (because of the high-school incident to which the film’s title refers); and then a journey to their abandoned-train-tunnel hangout spot, where they smoke weed, point an unloaded gun at each other, and reminisce about a time that only Donald might still describe as “glory days.”
Throughout, Donald’s toothy grin and over-enthusiastic hugs speak to his urgent longing to reconnect with (and gain the admiration of) Peter, while a pick-up football game and a later bout of wrestling provide an outlet for the anger, frustration and hurt lurking just beneath their under-control exteriors. In virtually every closeup, “Donald Cried” practically seethes with barely suppressed emotion, though Avedisian cannily couches his characters’ very real, raw feelings amid a ridiculousness born of Donald’s wholesale weirdness.
Avedisian’s film casts Donald — too dim to transcend his sorry lot, and yet desperate for the approval of the friend who abandoned him for greener Wall Street pastures — as worthy of both mockery and pity. While the character is a type seen numerous times before, Avedisian embodies him with such off-kilter strangeness that he’s difficult to resist. While Wakeman adeptly conveys Peter’s own messy feelings about a former self, and upbringing, he’d just as soon discard, he’s ultimately just the foil for Donald’s consistently sad, bizarre attempts to recapture a past that, on the face of it, doesn’t seem to have been that happy in the first place.
Avedisian’s handheld camerawork is unobtrusive and workmanlike, and a few images — such as a shot from a minivan’s backseat that accentuates the chasm between Peter and Donald, who are almost completely nudged out of the frame — have an understated expressiveness. Yet mostly, “Donald Cried” is a showcase for its writer-director-star’s central weirdo, who unlike so many misfit indie contemporaries (*cough* Napoleon Dynamite *cough*), is treated with a respect that stems from the desire to understand, and empathize with, his clownish social-outcast sorrow.