The word “bromance” was a pretty awful one to begin with, but it’s been done a disservice by years of pop-cultural ubiquity. Now tediously hauled out any time two straight men so much as pat each other on the back, it tends to denote palliness more than any particular emotional intimacy. “The Climb,” however, thoughtfully returns to the root of the term: In Michael Angelo Covino’s clever, open-souled debut feature, a long-term friendship between two average guys is given the dramatic shape and structure of a tempestuous love story, rich in conflicts, faultlines and intense feeling that fights any other relationship standing in its way. The men involved wouldn’t describe it this way, of course: Beautifully written and performed by the director and real-life BFF Kyle Marvin, Covino’s film gets precisely the balance of dependency and denial that keeps a bad bromance afloat.
Premiered at Sundance last year, Covino’s eight-minute short “The Climb” worked a deep-reaching tale of fraternal betrayal into the framework of a single, casual bike ride; it was self-contained, but clearly had ample scope for expansion. For the feature-length version, Covino and Marvin effectively honor the project’s short-form origins with an elegant seven-chapter structure, dividing the events of a decade into separate, piquant vignettes spaced months or even years apart — any one of which could stand independently as a window into the characters’ pained, inseparable relationship. Informed as much by the breezy, bittersweet comedies of Frenchmen like Eric Rohmer and Bertrand Blier as it is by the mumblecore sensibility of Joe Swanberg and Lynn Shelton, the wry, appealing result should easily secure multi-platform distribution following a lofty premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand. Sundance and SXSW programmers could be forgiven some envy.
Then again, Cannes feels a spiritually apposite place to unveil a film that not only tips its hat to French auteurs, but crams its endearing soundtrack with woebegone vintage chansons from the likes of Gilbert Bécaud. The action begins in France too, with a slightly tweaked replay of the short, introducing athletic alpha type Mike (Covino) and his gentle, schlubby best friend Kyle (Marvin) on a Gallic cycling vacation that we soon learn is a kind of stag event ahead of Kyle’s imminent wedding to Ava (Judith Godrèche) — the perfect moment, in best man Mike’s view, to admit that he and Ava have slept together.
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The immediate, aggrieved fallout of this confession is the stuff of knockabout farce, though it all plays out in a fluid single take on the road, with Kyle’s anger and admonishment stymied by the exhaustion of an uphill bike trudge. Yet “The Climb” (no prizes for guessing that the title isn’t just a cycling reference) soon reveals more complex tonal strings to its bow. The next time we encounter the guys, a marriage has taken place and a funeral is in process, though the filmmakers make their audience wait to find out who exactly is wed or dead.
With the help of Sara Shaw’s lithe editing, every one of the film’s segments begins with some such instance of deft narrative wrongfooting, making viewers reorient themselves each time the narrative takes a chronological leap. Puzzling out who has done what to whom, and over what period of time, is part of the fun, but also poignantly evokes the awkward process of reintroduction and renegotiation that happens every time once-close friends drift and collide once more. Mike and Kyle do this repeatedly over the course of “The Climb,” with the former’s growing toxicity and the latter’s easily exploited kindness keeping this push-pull dynamic in constant motion, even as another woman — mutual high-school acquaintance Marissa (Gayle Rankin) — enters the spoiled space between them. You half-expect either of the men to quote “Brokeback Mountain” at any point by declaring, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Further context for their brotherly love-hate bond arrives in a remarkable centerpiece sequence knitting together the Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations of Kyle’s extended family, around whom Mike hovers like a liquor-breathed, sweater-wrapped ghost of gatherings past. Executed as a graceful, mournful sequence shot, snaking around a squat middle-American home and peering perceptively through gaudily fairy-lit windows, it’s the balletic high point of Zach Kuperstein’s lensing, which is nonetheless a subtle asset throughout: The rising d.p. does as much here with stark, selective splashes of primary color as he did with the chiaroscuro pools of Nicolas Pesce’s “The Eyes of My Mother.”
Marking passing years and seasons with small switches in palette and texture, the film’s quietly composed visual aesthetic is one of several ways in which Covino seeks to differentiate “The Climb” from its scuzzier, normcore-clad Amerindie brethren. Less successful are stray departures into incidental, musical absurdism, such as a Ukrainian choir braying in the snow, or a group of gravediggers harmonizing in a direct-to-camera rendition of “I Shall Not Be Moved”: Covino’s film would remain distinctive without such hyper-eccentric flourishes.
For all its careful formal detailing, “The Climb’s” rewards are primarily ones of dialogue and performance. Covino and Marvin imbue both with the spontaneous rhythms and reflexes of their real-life connection, but it’s not entirely a two-man show: Rankin is just prickly-sympathetic enough in a tricky part that could easily be played as shrewish caricature, while Talia Balsam, in a brief, vivid appearance as Kyle’s mother, gives the words “I don’t know” a separately weary spin on each of three consecutive readings. “The Climb” has an eye and ear for such secondary details in others even when its two leading characters do not, consumed as they are by bromantic agony. “I just want someone who wants to be with me,” Kyle moans at one point — not knowing, or choosing not to know, that his awful, exasperating, unfaithful best friend is that someone, for better or worse.