Helmer Nathan Adloff’s unassuming debut effort, “Nate & Margaret,” chronicles the unlikely friendship between a cheery 19-year-old gay film student and his neighbor, a dour 52-year-old waitress/standup comedienne. The two bike around Chicago together, root through Goodwill shelves in search of kitschy oddities and suffer through drunken birthday parties. With a well-structured script (by Adloff and Justin D.M. Palmer) and superlative thesping, this moving, engagingly low-key curio could score on cable. Pic also reps the farewell presentation of Aaron Hillis’ ReRun Gastropub; this Brooklyn mecca for microbudget indies will be sorely missed.
Unlike Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” pairing, which the protags’ extreme age difference calls to mind, the relationship between Nate (Tyler Ross) and Margaret (Natalie West) remains purely platonic and free from sexual tension. Theirs is the casual codependency of best pals. Margaret holds the boom for Nate’s film projects, and Nate provides encouragement and lone applause for Margaret’s standup gigs.
Nate has come to Chicago from a small Midwest town that afforded no opportunities for gay relationships. When he meets James (Conor McCahill), his first boyfriend, he is delightedly swept away. He begins to drift from Margaret, urged toward uncharacteristically thoughtless behavior by James, who disguises his selfishness as the impatience of infatuation — an attitude mirrored by Nate’s partying fellow student Darla (Gaby Hoffman).
Meanwhile, Margaret’s standup career, launched in the coffee shop where she waitresses and characterized by the boredom of a captive audience impatient to place its orders, begins to percolate. The change arrives not through any revelation, but by the slow process of honing her routine. Her tentative, apologetic delivery is gradually molded into a confident, ironic voice that draws impressed, sympathetic laughter from larger and larger crowds as she tours. She also acquires a new best friend in her manager (Charles Solomon Jr.).
“Nate and Margaret” would be difficult to imagine without the pitch-perfect perfs of Ross and West. Ross, who started as a child actor, brings a genuine sweetness and naivete to Nate, making his unquestioned loyalty and attachment to Margaret as understandable as his later reluctant betrayal. But it’s West’s one-of-a-kind Margaret who ultimately steals the show. With a wardrobe too hideously unflattering to be happenstantial, she stealthily imposes her self-image as a scarred, sardonic abuse survivor on her audiences, as well as on those watching the film.
Tech credits are accomplished but never slick. Brian Levin’s controlled lensing feels casual and open-ended, establishing the limited spaces through which characters move, propelled as much by the film’s wall-to-wall music track as by any inner compulsion.