The road not taken is revisited at one’s own peril in “Detonator,” a fine first feature for co-directors/scenarists Damon Maulucci and Keir Politz. Their protagonist is a thirtysomething ex-musician whose abandoned dreams of rock stardom — once tantalizingly close to realization — are brought sharply back to life by the sudden reappearance of the very person who derailed them. Taking place over 24 harried, sometimes harrowing hours, this small, punchy drama won’t set the box office on fire, but should win critical support in limited theatrical launch (starting April 11) to boost niche home-format exposure. It’s already been released via iTunes and OnDemand.
Sully (Lawrence Michael Levine) is distracted to the point of not-quite-thereness, a perpetual condition that hardly goes unnoticed by spouse Karen (Dawn L. Hall), who’s concerned about his commitment to their relationship in general and to their 5-year-old son, Albert (Christopher Lamothe), in particular. What’s tugging Sully’s attention elsewhere is revealed when he can’t bring himself to sell a vintage amplifier he no longer has any practical use for, despite the family’s tight finances. A few years back he was the frontman in Detonator, a pop-punk band that seemed destined for great things.
But that bright future was extinguished when bandmate Mick (Benjamin Ellis Fine), an addict, compulsive liar and screw-up, stole money and disappeared, leaving their newly recorded first album held permanent hostage by their furious manager, Dutch (Robert Longstreet). After that, Detonator simply fell apart, its members slinking off into obscurity with the exception of a “girl drummer” (and Sully’s ex g.f.), who is now a bona fide pop star with her own band and a hit song that, adding insult to injury, bears a certain resemblance to one of the defunct unit’s old songs.
Thus it’s with highly mixed feelings that Sully greets an out-of-the-blue call from Mick himself. Mick swears he’s turned over a new leaf — despite being headed the next morning to a 30-day jail stint for a DUI —and needs to discuss some big plans. Against his better judgment, Sully acquiesces, skeptically hearing the ne’er-do-well out as he proclaims his intention to pay Dutch back, free their never-released record, and conquer the world at last.
More tempted than he’ll admit, Sully chauffeurs his friend around on various errands, only to discover not only that Mick thinks they can pick up exactly where they left off — before he burned all their bridges — but also that he’s just as deceptive, thieving, and childishly irresponsible as ever. Every step taken during what turns into a very long night in the clubs and on the streets of Philadelphia gets them deeper into trouble that Sully, already on thin ice with wife and child, can ill afford.
Ingratiating himself with a junkie’s remorseless guile, Mick is such bad news the viewer will want to slap him and shake some sense into should-know-better Sully. Yet the filmmakers etch the character dynamics so astutely that we never doubt the credibility of even the most ill-considered actions. For all the violent threat presented by the grudge-carrying Dutch in Longstreet’s formidable turn, the narrative tension here is strikingly restrained — notably in a scene in which the two leads play their shelved record for a sneering industry honcho (Joe Swanberg), nary a word being said as it becomes obvious to everyone but the delusional Mick that the music’s snotty adolescent angst now sounds ludicrous and dated. The resolution is surprisingly low-key yet perfect: Instead of the beatdown Mick so richly deserves, Sully serves him a fate at once generous and ruthlessly final.
Performances are first-rate, with all leads (firecracker Fine aside) reunited from modest 2010 indie breakout “Gabi on the Roof in July,” which Levine directed/co-wrote and Takal produced. Cast and crew are further fleshed out by familiar names from that incestuous indie scene from which Swanberg is (so far) the most prominent figure here. The original score is by veteran punk popper Joe Jack Talcum of the Dead Milkmen (“Bitchen’ Camaro”), with cuts by alt-rock acts filling out the flavorful soundtrack. Tech/design contributions are excellent, as are the gritty locations in a film that makes Philly very much a principal character.