Director Tim Sutton describes “Pavilion,” his slender, youth-smitten debut, as a “document” of contemporary adolescence, a word that helps allay whatever expectation of narrative auds might have. Stubbornly resisting the need for story, as well as the idea that all peach-fuzz portraits must bear witness to that elusive transformation known as coming of age, this artful arm’s-length exercise simply observes as anonymous teens wile away lazy afternoons on bikes, boats or just sitting around the house. In that way, “Pavilion” is more coffee-table photo-essay than commercial release, best suited for exposure at fests and specialty showcases.
One doesn’t necessarily recognize all the conventions of teenage-set tales until encountering a film like “Pavilion,” which deliberately suggests a new way of observing youth. Sutton’s subjects seem relatively well-adjusted and carefree, unbothered by the angst of their many fictional counterparts, and the director displays little interest in the budding sexuality, aggression and precocity that feeds the work of Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark and the like.
There’s no creepy fetishization of bare chests or baggy shorts to be found here, no Bruce Weber-style suggestion that teens are a lone water-balloon toss away from an orgy, just a return to a naive state of mind in which junior high is a scab nearly healed and the SATs are still too far ahead to fret. With one exception, adults seem relatively attentive throughout the film, and even though some of the activities (underage drinking, a party in which one guy staples his own forehead) would give most parents pause, a sense of danger is nowhere to be found onscreen.
Working from a loose short-story outline rather than a traditional script, Sutton has cast average kids from relatively comfortable suburban neighborhoods in New York and Arizona, loosely linking the two locations through a 15-year-old boy (Max Schaffner) who moves from the sylvan comfort of his lakeside home in Cazenovia, N.Y., to the almost lunar desolation of Chandler, Ariz. You have to be watching pretty closely to extract even that degree of continuity from the film, which feels even more dislocated than its ostensible protagonist as it shifts between these two disparate environments.
“Pavilion” seems to be chasing a mood more than a story, and in d.p. Chris Dapkins’ hypnotic, shallow-focus lensing, audiences find themselves enlisted in the boys’ low-key adventures, which range from lighting sparklers in a field to taking long bike rides down deserted streets. Sutton has the good fortune to be making the film at a moment when digital cameras are capable of capturing the subtle textures so integral to his sense of being 15 (or so) in America, rounding off the rosy glow of a desert sky or mossy shadows of a private forest corridor with mellow, trance-like tracks from the Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop.
The images appear deceptively casual, the action virtually unrehearsed, as if the team has merely turned on the camera, which typically remains fixed, to spy on the way kids of privilege but no apparent purpose pass their time. Still, the beauty of the footage is undeniable, and the aimlessness never overstays its welcome as the film documents that strange stretch in our lives when nothing seems to matter more than the present moment, suspended in a sort of idle immortality.