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Film Review: ‘Mount Joy’

This drama about a Pennsylvania indie-rock band wraps a thin story in an appealing visual and musical package.

With:

Jay Della Valle, Katie Hyde, Brandon Lee Harris, Timothy Hoobler, Matt Watson, Nathan Gregory, Jillian Louis, Lou Martini Jr., Marcin Paluch, Sean Gallagher, Josh Eves, Kate Hodge, Bilgin Turker.

There’s a certain indie-rock authenticity and some real filmmaking chops to “Mount Joy,” though the care and affection expended on this indie drama’s audiovisual packaging are regrettably lacking in the script department. Portraying a rural Pennsylvania band’s crisis when its manager (also the frontman’s g.f.) takes a sudden, inexplicable hike, it has a song lyric’s virtues — a feel for emotion, some vivid imagery, the odd insightful detail. But at the length of a full feature rather than a 45-rpm single, it badly needs the blanks of psychological depth and narrative complexity filled in. Pic should do well amongst smaller North American festivals (and those angled toward music movies), with potential for regional theatrical exposure and home-format sales perhaps fueled by tie-in live performances.

Living in picturesque semi-squalor in their late parents’ farmhouse are siblings George (Timothy Hoobler), Randy (Brandon Lee Harris) and Alex (Katie Hyde), who are bassist, drummer and manager, respectively, for the Living Daylights. Its songwriter-singer-guitarist is a boy named Sue (Jay Della Valle), so it figures he’d be head over heels for a girl named Alex. Though they can only be so big a deal in this backwater, they’ve acquired enough of a following, and Alex has sent out enough demos, to orchestrate a first national tour — even if it’s just the kind that means driving in a van overnight from one dive club to another. But on the eve of its start, Alex disappears, leaving scant explanation and no means of contact. She claims she’s taking business classes in New York, but clearly something else is going on.

Her departure deprives the band of its logistical brain, but even more importantly, it leaves Sue completely rudderless. Despite his like-Springsteen-but-punkier air of working-class rock-god cool, he can barely live, let alone create, without his muse. He crawls into a bottle of booze, emerging only to do his day job as a garbage collector, while the tour unravels, date by missed date. Goofballs Randy and George are willing to soldier on as a band, but they lack the authority to motivate Sue likewise. When Alex does turn up, unannounced and intending just a brief stay, she refuses to divulge the truth, but it eventually comes out anyway. Suffice it to say she’s hiding some bad news in order to spare others grief — the kind of noble sacrifice that, in movies, just prolongs everyone’s suffering until they all reunite to face tragedy in a final lovefest of tears and hugs.

Trouble is, there’s really nothing of substance between the initial establishment of relationships and the climactic melodrama (which manages to include a barn fire). In place of characters who deepen under duress, there are lots of montages of people hanging out together, or sitting around looking bummed out, set to admittedly pretty cool tracks by Pennsylvania indie-rock bands. At times, “Mount Joy” is reminiscent of “The Grungies,” the grunge-rock spoof of the Monkees on “The Ben Stiller Show,” offering the same mix of wacky, rather childish hijinks and “edgy” alterna-lifestyle cred, albeit without the satirical intent. While fetchingly put together, these musicvideo notions of how to advance character don’t build the actual emotional investment required for what’s ultimately a straight-up tearjerker.

The sole attempt to provide additional conflict beyond the poorly developed central one is via a couple redneck bullies (Marcin Paluch, Sean Gallagher) who show up on occasion to bust up the joint. But they’re strictly one-dimensional, and never integral to the thin main narrative. Nonetheless, “Mount Joy’s” accomplished, energetic surface offers sustaining pleasures of its own, despite the lack of connective tissue beneath. Producer/d.p. Mark Sparrough’s anamorphic widescreen lensing highlights an impressive overall tech/design package. The performers are likable enough, particularly the more comically attuned supporting ones; several are actual musicians as well as actors, notably Della Valle, who’s recorded several CDs and performs the Living Daylights’ appealing songs (which he also composed).

Pic was shot on location in Lancaster County, Penn., the hometown of director Jack Lewars, scenarist M. Angelo Mena and various other participants. It’s also where “Witness” was once shot, though no Amish folk are glimpsed here.

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Film Review: 'Mount Joy'

Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (competing), Feb. 1, 2014. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production:

An Indie City Films presentation. Produced by Katie Hyde, Mark Sparrough. Executive producers, Courtney Clayton Bush, Taylor Choyce, Barry Dangerfield, Linda Dangerfield, Nick Delcarlino, Nitin Jain, Joe Gawler, Steve Milliken, Mark Novitch, Louise Novitch, Patrick Raher, Rosalinda Raher, John Sambalino, Michael Sparrough, Kathleen Sparrough, Dave Streltsoff, James Wood, Andrew Yerre, Leah Yerre.

Crew:

Directed by Jack Lewars. Screenplay, M. Angelo Mena. Camera (color, widescreen, HD) Mark Sparrough; editors, Alan Lowe, Jonathan Sanden; production designer, Angela Cullen; costume designer, Tammy Gibbens; sound, Randy Matuszewski; assistant director, Christopher Shea.

With:

Jay Della Valle, Katie Hyde, Brandon Lee Harris, Timothy Hoobler, Matt Watson, Nathan Gregory, Jillian Louis, Lou Martini Jr., Marcin Paluch, Sean Gallagher, Josh Eves, Kate Hodge, Bilgin Turker.

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