The lines between reality, re-enactment, manipulation and mythologizing have grown so fuzzy of late that they might seem a perma-gray zone from which no further discomfort can be bled. Ready-made cult objet d’art “The Beaver Trilogy,” however, suggests otherwise. Trent Harris’ three short films, originally shot 16 to 21 years ago, chart a bizarre, mutating relationship between filmmaker and subject: The first is a stranger-than-fiction docu, the second a crude parody, while the third reps a larger-spirited stab at seriocomic amplification. A longtime source of underground fandom, the “Beaver” pics are overdue for wider play; package should kick up some interesting arthouse dust, abetted by the participation of the very young Sean Penn and Crispin Glover.
The real star here, however, is one Groovin’ Gary, a 21-year-old Harris met in a 1979 Salt Lake City parking lot when latter was working as a local TV news cameraman. Duly armed with vidcam, Harris found a very willing subject in the self-described “Rich Little of Beaver (Utah),” who proceeds to do celebrity impressions and generally ham it up. Soon after, star-struck protag deluged Harris with invites to shoot small-town Beaver’s best talent at an amateur variety show he’d orchestrated himself.
Curiosity piqued, Harris arrived to find Gary (who’s declined any public association with these films in years since) being prepped for his headliner appearance by the local mortuary cosmetician. Bewigged and cross-dressed, he’s set to pay fervent homage to his idol Olivia Newton-John.
Later at the high school auditorium, a series of amusingly dreadful local “talents” presage Gary’s full-dress, over-the-top interp of Olivia’s histrionic “Please Don’t Keep Me Waitin’,” followed (sans drag) by a salute to his other hero, Barry Manilow.
Crudely shot, this first short is unforgettable for one reason alone: Groovin’ Gary, a strapping all-American-jockish blond whose simultaneously sincere, ludicrous, extroverted and embarrassed efforts at self-expression most definitely suggest sexual identity issues. While there’s an obvious camp value in watching “The Beaver Kid’s” hapless performances, it’s undercut by the genuine rooting interest Gary earns — he’s so endearing, so desperate to be liked, that audience titters soon become heartfelt cheers.
Notably, Sundance aud reaction was much more muted to “Beaver Kid 2,” shot on B&W video two years later. Having enlisted a then barely known Penn to play Groovin’ Larry, Harris basically remakes the first film, deploying some of the original variety show footage and replicating much dialogue verbatim. Pic’s evident cheapness (a reported $100 budget) isn’t the problem here: It’s that after “Beaver’s” bemused but winning real-life portrait, the sequel feels like a crass violation of trust.
Harris plays himself on camera, smirking with disbelief at Larry’s pathetic misfitdom. Penn’s perf likewise feels like a juvenile putdown of a too-easy target, and seg overall seems to be laughing at its loser protag.
As if to make amends, slicker 1985 “Orkly Kid” again revisits the same story, albeit in more sympathetic terms. An ideally cast Glover is now Larry, his hamming both in and out of drag making him the laughingstock of fictional Orkly, Iowa. But this time Harris frames Larry as a comical yet brave individualist amidst small-minded townies.
“Orkly Kid” ends in classic inspirational-uplift fashion as Larry drives off to destinations unknown, leaving his tormentors behind to chew humble pie. Though less sophisticated stylistically, pic anticipates later Oscar-winning short “Trevor” and French arthouse hit “Ma vie en rose” in both theme and seriocomic tilt. Seldom has Glover gotten the chance to layer this much poignant depth into one of his usual wierdo roles.
Taken as a whole, “The Beaver Trilogy” offers quirky entertainment while raising questions about the relationships between subject and filmmaker, documentation vs. exploitation, reportage and the higher truth liberties claimed by dramatization. If more troubling aspects here are more accidental than deliberate, they nonetheless resonate far beyond the camp comedics of Harris’ features “Rubin and Ed” (with Glover) and “Plan 10 From Outer Space.”
Package sports only the most basic title cards for each seg, with few credits listed. Variable original tech aspects befit homegrown flavor; transfer to 35mm is OK.