Review: ‘Harry and Max’

Christopher Munch's usual stylishness and casual storytelling tenor lend persuasion to this curious drama about two brothers, both teen music idols, who demonstrate an incestuous attraction. That titillating theme just might earn pic slightly wider exposure than the writer-helmer's regrettably underseen "Sleepy Time Gal."

Christopher Munch wrote and shot his latest feature with, for him, unaccustomed speed; the result may well impress viewers as suggesting slow-and-steady really does win the race. Munch’s usual stylishness and casual storytelling tenor lend persuasion to this curious drama about two brothers, both teen music idols, who demonstrate an incestuous attraction. That titillating theme just might earn “Harry and Max” slightly wider exposure than the writer-helmer’s regrettably underseen “Sleepy Time Gal,” though “Gal” rang psychologically truer — and required far less suspension of disbelief (or moral queasiness) — than this current effort.

The two protags set out from their parents’ tony Southern California home for a camping trip long promised by Harry (Bryce Johnson) to 16-year-old Max (Cole Williams), his younger brother by seven years. They’re both playful and prickly with each other — Max feels neglected, while Harry chafes at any criticism of his (admittedly problematic) lifestyle.

Harry is in a popular “boy band,” with the band’s fortunes hinged on a new album that might extend its winning streak or signal that its allotted 15 minutes are up. Max, meanwhile, has somewhat reluctantly commenced his own teen-dream chart career. When a female hiker begs his autograph (but not Harry’s), alcoholic and temperamental Harry’s insecurities are laid bare.

But the major tension between them isn’t show-biz inspired; rather, it’s sexual, with assertive Max eager to revisit an intimacy that apparently occurred during a Bermuda vacation two years earlier.

Camping one night and in a motel the next, younger bro presses himself on skittish elder. Back in L.A., and obsessed with one another yet never quite on the same emotional page, the two young men spend an afternoon separately seducing each other’s exes (Rain Phoenix as Harry’s aggrieved former g.f. Nikki, Tom Gilroy as Max’s erstwhile yoga teacher/lover Josiah) before one last, abortive nocturnal tryst.

Two codas chart first an awkward NYC reunion two years later, then a more tranquil coming-to-terms some time thereafter.

While lead characters never do the deed during the story’s timeframe (nor is there any real nudity), “Harry and Sam” definitely pushes the envelope in terms of lending potential fraternal incest an alluring frisson. Perhaps the strangest element here isn’t the narrative conceit itself, but the fact that director Munch handles it in such typically low-key, benevolently observant fashion. Same cannot be said, however, for his at times soap opera-esque dialogue, which produces occasional howlers. Perfs do their best to imbue a somewhat dubious scenario with naturalistic conviction. The androgynous-looking Williams and, particularly, clean-cut Johnson (from late TV series “Popular”) render myriad contradictory character behaviors at least somewhat credible. Michelle Phillips, who had her own moment in the pop spotlight with the Mamas the Papas long ago, appears for just one scene as the boys’ well-intentioned yet profiteering mother.

Micro-budgeted, minimally crewed pic nonetheless enjoys full benefit of Munch’s fresh camera eye (lenser is his veteran collaborator Rob Sweeny) and knack for creating interesting visual/audio/editorial textures.

Harry and Max

Production

An Antartic Pictures production. Produced by Roni Deitz,Christopher Munch. Directed, written, edited by Christopher Munch.

Crew

Camera (color), Rob Sweeney; additional editing, Annette Davey, James Lyons; music, Frequency 5, Papercranes, Gregory Scott, Jamie Laboz; art director, Doran Meyers; costume designer, Kristen Anacker; sound editor, Frederick W. Helm; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 17, 2004. Running time: 73 MIN.

With

Harry - Bryce Johnson Max - Cole Williams Josiah - Tom Gilroy Nikki - Rain Phoenix Jordan - Justin Zachary Sandy - Michelle Phillips
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