Tamar Halpern’s whip-smart “Shelf Life” posits the public library as a war zone between a free spirit and a power-addled librarian, and taps into a fresh source for American comedy. Before its female combatants exit on a startling note of metaphysical freedom, pic is a lean, elemental clash of characters that can be read as standing in for the country’s larger cultural battles. Prime for fest circulation, Halpern’s second feature will draw considerably more attention than her debut, “Memphis Bound and Gagged.”
Black-garbed, slightly punkish Nikki Reynolds (Betsy Brandt) is ready to face off with head librarian Betty Bonhauser (Elisa Bocanegra) in a typically bland library that Betty rules like a self-appointed potentate, when, suddenly, the pair — bedraggled and dirty — is shown trying to explain themselves (in direct address to the camera) to their unseen boss behind a huge executive desk.
This is pic’s “Rashomon” nod, as each claim by Betty is matched by Nikki, illustrated in flashbacks. Nikki arrives to work at the library as part of her overall drug recovery program, which includes having to live at home with her odd mom (Holgie Forrester) and pee in a cup on a daily basis. Betty’s instantly suspicious of her and resents Nikki’s supposedly special handling care of her Uncle Tommy (William Jones), a local pol running for mayor.
When Betty accuses Nikki of stealing a dictionary and summons Sgt. Knofelmacher (Bonnie J. Kirk), Nikki enlists the moral support of insecure assistant librarian Ronald (Joe Smith, in a sweetly hilarious comic turn). The clash escalates, with Nikki’s on-and-off beau Jarrett (Ryan Spahn) ending up in bed with Betty.
It’s hard to remember another movie that has turned library storytelling sessions for kids into a rebellious act, or that lends the mere reading of a book (in this case, Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”) the weight of a life-changing event. If anything dampens pic’s pleasures, it’s Bocanegra’s forced airs as the huffy Betty in a perf that plays all the way to the back of the house and beyond.
On the other hand, Brandt (also in Halpern’s “Memphis”) wins hearts with a breezy charm that works as effectively on auds as it does on Ronald. Halpern’s filmmaking remains cool throughout, a nice match for Steve Elkin’s clean lensing.
Pic has no connection to the late Paul Bartel’s 1993 feature of the same name.