A tale of opposites, “The Elephant King” takes advantage of seedy Thai locales and the always exotic allure of Americans debauching abroad to tell the story of brothers on two different but ultimately destructive tracks. Festival play is likely, but the film may be too mainstream for arthouses, and too arty for the mall.
Oliver (Tate Ellington) is a damaged writer with a suicidal bent who lives with his protective mother (Ellen Burstyn) and somewhat emasculated father (Josef Sommer). All three, for different reasons, are preoccupied with Oliver’s brother, Jake (Jonno Robert), a dissipated rake who has fled debt and the law to take up residence among the bars, brothels and kick-boxing rings of Thailand. When he sends for his brother, Mom decides Oliver should bring Jake home to face the music.
The bar culture of Southeast Asia is fertile territory for drama, but “The Elephant King” is more reliant on the decadent atmosphere and sexuality of Thai nightlife than it is on narrative. The course each brother follows is fairly predictable; Oliver’s sexual initiation with Jake’s sometime girlfriend Lek (Florence Faivre) puts him through changes, but director-writer Seth Grossman is willing to take Oliver anywhere that’s novel.
Faivre should have a promising career, not just for her statuesque beauty but for her ability to navigate a role and character fraught with contradictions and moral shoals. She handles Lek’s seemingly split allegiances — between Oliver, Jake and her own culture and countrymen –delicately and with convincing care. Typically, Burstyn, too, is exceptional.
The film has a stylish look, expert editing by Saar Klein, Inbal B. Lessner and Lee Chatametikool, and deserves to find an audience, however niche.