A group of 30-ish friends’ party weekend turns into an excuse for some group transgressions and individual soul searching in “Milwaukee.” Torre Catalano’s debut feature — written in collaboration with several cast members, including spouse Martha MacIsaac — is a diverting, smoothly packaged ensemble seriocomedy. Like its characters, the pic makes for pleasant, mildly titillating company without ever suggesting there’s much depth to be plumbed beneath the attractive, slightly bland surface. Though its lack of marquee names will be a limitation, “Milwaukee” should parlay a decent fest run into niche sales in various formats, while serving as a solid calling card for the principal collaborators.
Sam (Alex Ashbaugh) had intended this getaway at his family’s California desert home to be an intimate one, during which he’d pop the question to longtime mate Isabella, aka Beans (Jodi Balfour). But somehow that morphed into an open invitation to several old friends and their partners or dates. So the roster for the weekend includes married couple Greta (MacIsaac) and Will (Brandon Jay McLaren), who seem to be experiencing some issues around fidelity and trust; athletic Chris (Jordan Hayes), who’s brought along her latest short-term boyfriend, Caleb (Dillon Porter); and Jay (Max Topplin), who sees his sole dateless status here as confirmation of a class-clown role he’s sick of playing.
Over dinner, amiable furniture builder Caleb is pumped for details re: his experiences attending Burning Man. Despite protests that “We’re cool (but) not that cool,” it’s decided that everyone will follow this inspirational example and have permission to cross whatever usual boundaries of inhibition and propriety they choose. (“Milwaukee” is the “safe word” chosen to put the breaks on should things get too uncomfortable.) At first this just occasions a lot of childish drunken horseplay. But then Beans — who’s never been involved with anyone but adoring Sam, her beau since they were 16 — takes the opportunity to expand her sexual boundaries a little. This has immediate repercussions, not least the domino effect of pushing Will and Greta’s problems out into the open.
Though the performers are all fine, an entirely character-based piece like this ought to do more to distinguish and background its characters. Even such basics as where most of them met and what each one does for a living are addressed barely, if at all. They’re defined mostly in relationship to each other, but those dynamics aren’t especially detailed, either. Nor is there any suggestion that “Milwaukee” actually means to be about superficial people — it just ends up that way, by apparently not thinking to include most of the things that usually help us grasp what makes fictive personalities tick. Perhaps this is what happens when you get a group of young industry actors to drum up a script without any particular agenda: a colorful-enough series of hookups and arguments between attractive, agreeable, ordinarily self-absorbed types that lack any larger thematic or social context.
Given that, however, “Milwaukee” could have been a hell of a lot more vacuous and indulgent. Instead, it’s briskly handled on all levels, from individual scene rhythms to overall packaging. Musicvideo vet Catalano avoids gratuitous flash while lending the potentially theatrical, one-location proceedings an easy fluidity in visuals and pacing, with Kit Pennebaker’s widescreen lensing a big help. While credits suggest limited resources, the pic is pro on all levels. Michael J. Fiore’s soundtracked songs (he’s credited as Faces on Film) hit a note of pleasant familiarity that, like the film itself, has a kind of “authenticity” that’s somehow derivative and a bit shallow — yet appealing enough, nonetheless.