Solitaire” would have made a very creditable Off-Broadway play or live television drama — in the 1950s. An examination of the fears, vulnerabilities and delusions of three “little people,” Francis Damberger’s low-budgeter is extremely well constructed, acted and shot. But its one-set location is constricting, calling to mind filmed theater, and same themes have been rehashed so many times that yawning familiarity outweighs pic’s undeniable qualities. Domestic B.O. possibilities are nil.
Damberger has fulfilled all the classical requirements of gradual character revelation, the withholding of secrets, and eventual growth and catharsis in telling this story of three losers stuck in an isolated Western Canadian cafe on Christmas Eve.
Slowly and with considerable care, the dramatist introduces Maggie, the eatery’s eternal proprietress, a lonely woman who plays the eponymous card game when there’s no business, and Burt, a shy, nerdy bachelor who dines at Maggie’s joint regularly.
On this slowest of all evenings (one wonders why the place is even open), Burt announces that Al, their old high school friend, will be returning that night for the first time in 25 years. This makes Maggie all aflutter, as it appears that Al was Mr. Popularity as a teenager, the best athlete and singer before setting out to conquer the world. When Al makes his grand entrance, he turns out to be a high-spirited middle-aged cowboy who brings the glazed Maggie and Burt back to life and seems like he might be everything he’s cracked up to be.
Unsurprisingly, Maggie, one of Al’s “good-time girls” back in school, has been in love with Al all this time, while Burt was just a flunky who always looked up to his glamorous hero. Over the course of the evening, the shine gradually comes off of Al’s glittering image, to the point where Maggie and Burt can finally emerge from his shadow and move on with their lives.
Damberger paints his character portraits methodically and fully, giving the viewer well-rounded, recognizable human beings with vivid pasts and convincing psychological profiles. More than that, he knows how to frame and edit his images, and keeps things moving visually through the pages and pages of dialogue.
But the writer’s method is just too familiar, and the eventual revelations too predictable, to excite audience interest.
The three characters here are totally caught up in their mutual pasts, and can only wax nostalgically for their days of dubious glory in high school, when things at least mattered. Al’s unmasking as a phony is hardly surprising and it remains unclear why he had to stay away for a quarter of a century.
Damberger’s methods are those of a playwright more than a cineaste, although his instincts for filmmaking are solid. Thesps Paul Coeur, Val Pearson and Mike Hogan are first-rate, and tech contributions are spare but pro.