Highly impressive debut feature by 24-year-old helmer/co-scripter Matt Oates, “Farewell Bender” revisits “American Graffiti,” with a short “Big Chill” detour, in its depiction of twentysomethings. In 1996 small-town California, three high school buddies reunite a few years after graduation for the funeral of a fourth, the titular Bender. Less surreally sterile than George Lucas’ classic neon-lit comedy angstfest, Oates’ bittersweet film is forcefully composed, solidly scripted and effortlessly embodied by an ensemble cast of up-and-comers. With the right handling, evocative youth pic could strike a rich minor chord.
In the days before the funeral, Mitch (Kip Pardue), a golden college boy with an assured high-income future; Stan (Eddie Kay Thomas), a perennial nice-guy with a municipal job, and Dixon (Josh Cooke), a walking time-bomb, perpetually wasted, who was present when Bender drowned, tool around town reprising their old high school hi-jinx in an inchoate tribute to their absent comrade.
They generally do anything, in fact, to avoid thinking about their prematurely deceased friend or the seemingly predestined career paths they have drifted into. Protective of Dixon, they are unwilling to probe deeper for the source of his obvious distress.
Oates and co-scripter Jeremiah Lowder cannot boast Cameron Crowe’s or Amy Heckerling’s ear for the poetry of teenspeak, but their characters thankfully do not all sound the same. The actors can stretch comfortably within the parameters of their unremarkable yet quite convincing dialogue.
Thesping is uniformly excellent, all perfs on the same small-town page. Pardue’s good-looking Mitch exudes a moneyed ease that registers more as destiny than choice, while Thomas’ Stan projects a nice-guy understanding of others that rebounds depressingly on himself. Cooke as Dixon telegraphs his silent anguish so strongly that he makes the viewer empathize with Mitch and Stan’s desire not to know what really happened.
On the distaff side, Kaley Cuoco is particularly affecting as Katie, whose four-year crush on Mitch culminates in a back-seat quickie and a pathetic/defiant insistence on tagging along.
From the opening dolly-in to the final match-dissolved traveling shots, Oates and lenser Paul Marschall evince a masterful but never showy stylistic control. This is nowhere more apparent than in the tour-de-force party scene where Stan’s new girl Amber (Alexandra Holden) takes him on an emotional roller-coaster ride mirrored in subtle lighting changes and vivid foreground/background contrasts.
Other tech credits are aces.