An ex-con’s attempt to take back control of his life doesn’t lead down any of the gritty roads you’d expect in “Hunter Gatherer,” a highly eccentric, funny-sad tale of friendship and failure that occupies a curious space between inner-city realism and almost childlike myth. Deliberately steering clear of the usual gangland drugs-and-violence cliches, Josh Locy’s writing-directing debut features a welcome starring role for Andre Royo (“The Wire”), whose performance as a wily hustler trying to stay one step ahead of possible ruin sets the tone for this odd, occasionally mystifying but undeniably singular and imaginative work. The attachment of David Gordon Green, Jody Hill and Danny McBride (three of 14 credited exec producers) should improve the film’s otherwise lean commercial prospects.
We never learn why Ashley Douglas (Royo) was sent to prison, or for how long, and Locy’s disinclination to spell out the presumably unpleasant details registers less as evasion than as a refusal to define his protagonist in terms of past misdeeds. Certainly he has enough present misdeeds to keep the movie busy. In an opening scene of busy domestic activity that may remind viewers of Charles Burnett’s “To Sleep With Anger” (1990), another film about a man’s fateful return to the fold, Ashley is already living back at home with his mother (Celestial), who’s already reaching the edge of her patience with her prodigal son and his perpetually dishonest, irresponsible ways.
Ashley’s goal is to regain the affections of his ex-girlfriend, Linda (Ashley Wilkerson), never mind that she wants nothing to do with him and has moved on with a friendly garbage man, Dwayne (Antonio D. Charity). Determined to win her back at any cost, Ashley gets a tutor to help him with his reading and writing (having never advanced beyond an elementary-school level), and starts seeking out decidedly unconventional ways to make money. When a kind, rather simple-minded stranger named Jeremy (George Sample III) uses his truck to help Ashley transport his mother’s old refrigerator to the local dump, a friendship is born — mostly to Ashley’s benefit, as Jeremy becomes the easily duped partner in his frequently harebrained schemes.
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Locy’s screenplay doesn’t advance from one plot point to the next so much as weave a cat’s-cradle of connections as it rambles in and around the same neighborhood — easily recognizable as South Los Angeles, brought to vivid life in d.p. Jon Aguirresarobe’s background-rich lensing and production designer Thomas Obed’s sets. The movie may often revisit the same dilapidated porches and dried-up backyards, but it uncovers fresh complications and pockets of feeling each time. Although he’s still deeply in love with Linda, Ashley doesn’t mind shacking up with Jeremy’s aunt Nat (Kellee Stewart). But his mother soon sends them both packing, forcing Nat to take up with another admirer, Ray (Kevin Jackson), who conveniently owns a motel.
The game of musical rooms that ensues winds up impacting Ashley and Jeremy’s increasingly deranged business venture, which includes rounding up old refrigerators for sale — or disposal, or burial (the strategy seems to change by the day). Meanwhile, Jeremy has serious goals of his own: namely, to repair the clanging old respirator that will hopefully revive his gravely ill grandfather. He makes his own living by becoming a sort of human lab rat in the name of science; the sight of Jeremy’s lower torso covered in large electrochemical patches is one of the film’s most enigmatic, hard-to-shake images.
Locy has structured “Hunter Gatherer” as a series of interrelated quest narratives — the active, problem-solving angle of which is built right into the title — which lends the movie its weirdly charmed, even magical feel. Yet at no point does it feel as though the film is soft-pedaling the complexities of being a poor, uneducated black man in urban American, only that it’s intent on telling a different story — or perhaps the same story in a different, less widely used language. Locy’s movie may be set in a world purged of violence or expletives, but it feels the opposite of slick and sanitized. Whether it’s Nat’s sad-yet-sensible acknowledgment of her need for a man to take care of her, or Ashley’s seeming inability to take on any new endeavor without letting others down or being tripped up by his old ways, these characters’ human foibles come through all too clearly.
The picture is well cast and memorably acted all around. Audiences who know Royo’s performance on “The Wire” as Bubbles, the heroin addict turned police informant, will immediately grasp how well suited the actor is to the part of another well-meaning scam artist, slyly turning every opportunity to his advantage. Ashley can be infuriating, but at no point does he feel like anything less than a man living his difficult life to the fullest, and there’s something admirable about his perpetual readiness to roll with the punches.
As the patient, unfailingly loyal Jeremy, Sample gives a performance that runs bone-deep, even when the character threatens to become something of a plaster saint in the film’s affecting if bewildering final stretch. He provides the perfect soft-spoken foil to Royo’s endless chatterbox, and their many scenes together cement “Hunter Gatherer” as a portrait of an improbable but indelible friendship — as well as a reminder that the hard work of survival gets a bit easier when it becomes a shared adventure.