Words jump off the page and into the lives of cafe habitues in the aptly titled “Coffee and Language,” a single-setting chatfest that avoids almost all the pitfalls of dialogue-heavy urban fare. A good transfer to film could bring pic to smarter boho auds, and it should have a very long life as a starter pack for college writing courses.
Matched sets of often talking heads inhabit a San Francisco coffee bar over just a few nights in this just-right blend of pure conversation and clever visual interpretation. Players, all with legit roots, are led by helmer-scripter J.P. Allen, who plays a chess-playing aesthete who’s a little too quick on the draw when throwing literary opinions at his slower, kinder board buddy (Chris Pflueger).
Charles Blackburn and Fred Pitts play two middle-aged black men who can’t get through a newspaper article without one calling the other a racist, and Pat Everett essays a white-haired old-timer with dreamy memories triggered by the book he’s reading.
Most crucially, a lonely paramedic (Chopper Bernet) accosts a well-known novelist (producer-editor Janis DeLucia Allen) with his assumptions about her work — and, through it, about her. She’s a bit freaked out, especially when Mr. Intensity insists on reading her one of his own short pieces.
Fortunately for her (and for what Allen’s trying to pull off), the story is brilliant, both in its writing craft and in its staging, which allows the helmer to switch from muted black-and-white — as in all the cafe scenes — to grainy, impressionistic color. Each subsequent tale-within-a-tale, in fact, is shot on a different stock and in a different style.
The consequence is that a location which initially appears to be confining proves to be the caffeinated launching pad for unpredictable sorties into words and ideas at their most liberating and emotionally striking. Spare use of folk-rockish incidental music helps sustain the thrall, and the uniformly strong thesps, like the helmer, are generous with silence and humor without losing the pic’s essential tension.
Lenser K.C. Smith eschews fancy moves in favor of a cool look that highlights body language, along with the other kind, which is occasionally supported by white-on-black screen text. Hopeful endings works well, except for a single, too-happy image in final frame that needs to be trimmed before “Coffee” gets poured into distribution pot.