A bunch of assorted friends — male and female, gay and straight, American and Hispanic — drop by a Brooklyn house to wish its owner a happy 30th birthday in Ryan Gielen’s engaging, well-scripted, dynamically shot no-budgeter “Turtle Hill, Brooklyn.” Like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s “The Anniversary Party,” but less psychologically layered, pic is structured around the joys and tensions of its central couple: birthday boy Will (writer-producer Brian W. Seibert) and his live-in Latino lover Mateo (writer-producer Ricardo Valdez). Audience award winner at NewFest could score within and beyond gay-targeted venues with further fest exposure.
The day begins inauspiciously with the unannounced visit of Will’s sister Molly (Jeanne Slater), whose impromptu drop-in results in her horrified discovery of her brother’s homosexuality and Mateo’s realization that Will lied about having come out to his family. A rare inconsistent note in a film that otherwise flows with unstudied ease, Molly’s hysterical incomprehension feels like a bit of unfiltered reality that breaks through the script’s carefully crafted casualness.
The scene does, however, function as a contrast to Will’s matter-of-fact aura of acceptance and hangs a question mark over the couple’s reciprocal honesty. That doubt deepens as hidden secrets and infidelities threaten to undermine their seemingly solid relationship.
The friends steadily pouring in to Will’s birthday bash bear little resemblance to mumblecore slackers; they are doctors, community activists, CPAs and artists who have fashioned an existence more or less in their own image. They discuss politics, gay rights and aging with the ease of fellow travelers, an uninvited Republican in their midst briefly disrupting their equilibrium. But a truer cultural divide opens up with the arrival of Mateo’s friend Luis (Ariel Bonilla), who announces he is returning to Mexico, tired of restaurant jobs and being treated like a second-class citizen — a frustration Mateo shares, and of which Will seems largely unaware. Within the multicultural bubble of the couple’s close amigos, no such ethnic discrimination exists.
The film’s action spans several hours in the confines of Will’s house and the small garden just outside. Yet despite these time and space constraints, things never feel claustrophobic or static. Andrew Rivara’s handheld camera tracks characters kinetically (but not nervously) as they navigate the garden, group and regroup, underscoring the unique sense of communal exchange. Private dramatic confrontations in private corners of the house gain pressure by dint of being cut off from the free flow of the party.
Helmer Gielen also brings in a second camera, Mateo’s gift to Will. This is commandeered by one of the guests, who abruptly points it in the faces of fellow celebrants in mock-guerrilla contrast to the casual inclusiveness of the rest of the film.