Perhaps the last thing one would expect, in a film that, among other things, playfully weighs the artistic expressiveness of cinema against that of literature, is for the film to come down pretty definitively on the side of the written word. But that is just one of the mischiefs that Peter Parlow’s 76-minute lower-than-lo-fi “The Plagiarists” works on us — and with such conviction that even the convention of attributing the film solely to its director feels wrong here. Filmmaker and artist James N. Kienitz Wilkins vies for authorship too, credited as co-writer of the springy, self-aware script (with Robin Schavoir), as well as DP, producer, and editor. Wilfully student-video amateurish in form, but impishly sophisticated in content, a gleeful cultural curiosity fairly crackles off “The Plagiarists,” and it is highly contagious.
The image is square, and striped with the low-definition buzz of old Betamax, the premise so blandly rote as to feel like a prompt for a year-end student project: By their broken-down car, a stranded white couple bicker until a helpful stranger, who is black, arrives. Anna (an excellent Lucy Kaminsky) is a writer working on a memoir which she’d much rather you refer to as a novel. Her boyfriend Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) is a somewhat obnoxious aspiring-filmmaker-actual-cameraman. The relatably insufferable, hipsterish pair are pretty broke and the unforeseen expense of car repair threatens their planned vacation to Costa Rica, so when Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne), shows up and offers them the number of an inexpensive mechanic, and a free place to stay overnight while they wait, they warily accept.
At Clip’s house, where there’s also a young blond boy playing iPad games whose unexplained presence is the source of some furtive theorizing from the visitors, they cook dinner and get drunk, with ’80s camera aficionado Tyler discovering a trove of old video equipment in one of the closets. Up to now, “The Plagiarists” has been straightforward, if fuzzily so, mostly concerned with social-awkwardness comedy, millennial angst, and relationship dynamics — a kind of clearly enunciated mumblecore. But a transcendent thing happens when Clip, talking to Anna, suddenly goes into a long, plangent monologue about his childhood (Michael Payne is a musician and it shows in his delicious, melodic delivery of this prose-poem). The writerly words pour out of Clip like song. Anna’s fingers twitch as she listens. Is she going to become one of the plagiarists of the title?
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Actually things take a far less expected turn, involving Karl Ove Knausgård’s novel/memoir “My Struggle,” which Anna is reading months later during another car journey, this time to visit their friend Alison (Emily Davis) in the bougie country home that she usually rents out. (In addition to all its other pleasures, “The Plagiarists” finds time to subtly swipe at the frictionlessness of the modern AirBnB-renting, Blue Apron-subscribing, latte-sipping lifestyle.)
The film is dense with allusive dialogue that touches on authenticity, authorship, autobiography, homage, and theft without ever leaving the register of natural conversation — albeit chat between self-anointed culturati. But the spartan, video-bland aesthetic helps it not to feel overstuffed, while filmic tricks turn what might have been budget restrictions to its odd, unsettling advantage. The uncanniness of the sequences with Clip, for example, is partly because he never actually shares the frame with another character (the press notes tell us that Payne has still never met his co-stars); he is inserted into the film just like he’s inserted into their lives.
Almost every ostensible shortcoming ends up proving one of the film’s points. Monaghan’s slightly stilted performance makes sense when his mansplaining, opinionated Tyler is also hinted to be some manner of fraud. The midi-ringtone-style stock music that jarringly soundtracks a few scenes draws attention to the film’s form as a cheaply synthetic throwback to a newly nostalgized media era (child of the ’80s Tyler loves the TV video aesthetic because it’s so much more real than, say, shooting on a 6K RED camera, you know?). And a fractious exchange in a car with the radio tuned to NPR is a cacophony, until you realize that while Tyler and Anna argue about film and literature, the radio segment — featuring 2019 Berlinale Jury member (and former Variety critic) Justin Chang in a wild coincidence — is about Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here.” So, the filmmaker and the writer are debating various media over a radio interview with a print critic discussing a movie that’s based on a book.
The low-grade presentation makes it an unlikely candidate for theatrical release. But that crudeness ultimately proves more liberating than limiting as it makes “The Plagiarists” a very small-screen-friendly, enjoyable way to spend 76 economical minutes exploring heady ideas that may be referential and self-aware, but that clearly aren’t stolen from anyone.