After making waves on the fest circuit with “Godass” in 2000, Esther Bell advances from promising to impressive with her second feature, “Exist.” This improvisationally developed drama about the tragic aftermath of a Philadelphia squatters community broken up by police is acted primarily by non-professionals who are activist/squatters themselves. Pic provides a character-based view of a seldom-seen U.S. underground way of life sans preachiness or melodrama. Deliberately rough-hewn, uncompromising package is a longshot for commercial exposure, but deserves extensive travel on fest, cinematheque and adventuresome broadcast circuits.
Top (Nic Mevoli), a taciturn, withdrawn young man, has spearheaded the taking over of an abandoned building to start a squatters’ cooperative. Unable to articulate his frustrations, he becomes particularly resentful toward the presence of “uninvited, unwanted” new housemate Jake (Ben Bartlett), a Harvard dropout who “moved in” simply by becoming a resident girl’s bedmate.
To Top, Jake epitomizes the kind of all-talk, no-work “activism” that can spew out radical rhetoric all day, yet never lift a finger to help with the practicalities of communal life.
In an interesting reversal of the usual race/class equation, Caucasian Top is a refugee from an abusive, alcoholic working-class family, with no real alternatives beyond squatting or homelessness, and can’t stomach African-American Jake’s boasts of leaving his wealthy, privileged background simply because his parents are part of the capitalist bourgeoisie.
One night cops raid the building. In the ensuing melee, everyone scatters, leaving Jake an ineffectual witness to his girlfriend’s savage beating by the men in blue. During his brief attempt to defend her, a gun goes off, wounding an officer. Jake is accused of attempted murder. Terrified of jail, guilt-plagued over abandoning his g.f., and unwilling (a tad improbably) to enlist his family’s help, he becomes a fugitive hiding in basements and alleys.
Reduced himself to living in a shelter made of refuse, Top doesn’t know of or particularly care about his housemates’ fates. But he’s forced to act otherwise when his estranged, violent father enters the scene, basically blackmailing Top into tracking down Jake. Jake’s sister (Maya Alexander) also begs Top to find him. She provides the letters from Jake which led her to Top — letters that reveal surprising admiration for the housemate who’d despised him.
Top’s search for the MIA Jake ends on a tragic note that might seem a bit florid if pic’s quasi-documentary air didn’t keep things credible and low-key throughout. While Jake’s occasional voiceover narration (his letters read aloud) is somewhat pretentious and self-glorifying, that’s an intentional effect. It’s neatly counterpointed by Top’s own insecure, unsophisticated, gut-earnest musings.
Those looking for an emphasis on plot or walk-on-the-wild-side counterculture thrills may find “Exist” a little too “pure” to be entertaining. But in fact it’s very tightly packed despite the verite-style surface. Presenting characters and situations via evocative glimpses, it strikes a fine balance between ambiguity and narrative focus.
Perfs are very good, with Mevoli especially impressive in a role whose solitary, noncommunicative nature might easily have grown boring to watch. Contribs of lenser Tracy Gudwin, editor Yasunari Rowan and others demonstrate considerable subtle craftsmanship in the service of creating pic’s gritty feel.