At once starkly eccentric and deeply humane, writer-director Dusty Bias’ “The Great & the Small” offers a sympathetically bemused look at interconnected lives of quiet (or else colorfully voluble) desperation. The time-tripping narrative structure, which becomes apparent only after 30 or so minutes of running time, is a tad too distracting for the movie’s own good, and may cause needless frustration for any viewer who tries to suss out after the fact just what happened when, and why. Still, it’s no small measure of this technically proficient indie’s ability to engage that, yes, many viewers actually will want to make the effort.
At the center of it all is Scott (Nick Fink), a taciturn twentysomething who’s on probation for undescribed petty crimes, and forced to work for Richie (Ritchie Coster), a grandiloquent low-life who operates something or other — it may be a salvage yard or a construction supply company (again, precise details are not the movie’s strong suit) — as a front for a burglary enterprise.
When he isn’t crashing in abandoned houses, Scott seeks shelter with an ex-girlfriend, Nessa (Louisa Krause), who reluctantly agrees to let him back into her life — and, occasionally, her bed — if he agrees to serve as babysitter for her infant son. (Naturally, the father of this offspring is never identified.) Years earlier, the two of them collaborated on spawning another child, which Nessa gave up for adoption when she realized that Scott wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be a father. Even now, he is hard-pressed to master something as basic as changing diapers. But, then again, it’s obvious that Richie missed on learning about a lot of things, like riding a bike or eating pancakes, during a childhood only marginally less traumatic than Nessa’s.
Two other characters — Margaret (Melanie Lynskey), a sad-eyed schoolteacher who’s sleepwalking through life after enduring a heartbreaking tragedy, and Dupre (Ann Dowd), a drawling detective who brandishes her folksy manner like a blunt instrument — also figure into the mix. But to be specific about just how they’re involved would be to spoil some mildly surprising twists. Suffice it to say that Lynskey has a couple of quietly devastating moments, while Dupre stops just short of being too damn quirky for comfort. Meanwhile, Fink subtly reveals Scott’s inner fears and yearnings, Krause effectively plays Nessa as a woman unbound by any need to be subtle about her own revelations, and Coster steals scene after scene by sounding like he’s channeling the spirit of the late, great Bob Hoskins.
And best of all, Bias provides an emotionally and dramatically satisfying conclusion for his dramedy — which takes its title from a children’s book read aloud twice, each time with starkly different impact — by making sure that everyone gets what’s coming to them before the final credits roll.