Movies about American teenage life tend to be jumpy and exuberant, as if they were unfolding in a hive. In the usual high-school comedy, even the most out-of-the-loop dweebs are right there in the jammed hallways, getting tweaked by the mean girls (or mean boys) and hanging out with their fellow quick-witted losers. There are always scenes set in the cafeteria, or at keg parties, or in the back seats of vehicles strewn with friends and enemies. But what these movies tend to leave out — what movies, almost by nature, leave out — is the part of teenage life that’s about drifting around and dreaming and being alone, not just trying to join the crowd but getting the hell away from it.
“Giants Being Lonely” gets that. It’s a drama in the unlikely form of a 73-minute slice-of-life tone poem focused on the interior world of teenage jocks. It’s set in the woodsy enclave of an unnamed town in North Carolina, and the two main characters are high-school baseball players — Bobby and Adam, played by Jack Irving and Ben Irving, who are brothers, and who look just enough alike that it takes a few scenes to sort out which one you’re watching.
Both these characters are presented as resonantly gorgeous camera objects in the tradition of Larry Clark and Calvin Klein. They’re languid, long-haired dreamboats in yellow uniforms finishing off their senior year as pitchers for the Giants, their highly successful team. Bobby, the star, is a dude who stands on the mound like he owns it, racking up strikeouts; wherever he goes in town, people know him, and women swoon. (He falls into bed as easily as Vincent Chase used to on “Entourage.”) Not that his life is all glamour; he lives in a messy shack with his aging, broken-down alcoholic father (Larry White), who doesn’t even have the energy to show up for a game (though he’s not a mean drunk; he’s actually a rather kind drunk). Adam, the relief pitcher, is even better looking, with a straw-blond version of Jim Morrison’s mane. But his father, who’s the team coach, is the sternest taskmaster this side of the Great Santini, the kind of barking martinet who thinks that sports is training for life and that life is war.
“Giants Being Lonely” was written and directed by the mixed media artist Grear Patterson, who follows these two around, watching each walk home by himself after a game, or zeroing in on the fear and isolation they feel even in the middle of a game. The film gives you a sensation I’ve scarcely encountered outside of a Richard Linklater film — that jocks, even the ones who rule over high-school society, can be pensive and soulful and lost. They’re the kings of their own small world, so maybe they know better than anyone that being a king isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
The baseball scenes are absorbing, because the movie is alive to the pace of baseball — the time-suspending meditative charge of it. Off the field, we never once see a character with a cell phone, and given that these are contemporary teens, that plays as a conscious anachronism, almost a back-to-the-’70s wish. The film asks us to indulge and share the privacy of its characters. That’s its moody, free-floating allure.
Mostly, “Giants Being Lonely” gives us the feeling that we’re watching Linklater jocks as filmed by…well, look, I’m moved to use the M-word, and I hesitate to, since at this point it’s the kind of critical buzzword that scares people off (including me). But here goes: “Giants Being Lonely” is the adolescent-jock version of a Terrence Malick movie — as in, late-period Malick. As in: It’s a series of sidelong glimpses strung together with lyrical disaffection (though no whispers on the soundtrack, and no chorales either). At the same time, there’s a slightly sordid frankness to it. When Bobby is strolling along, a car pulls up beside him with a woman driving; we know where that’s headed, and moments later we see them in bed, languid in the afterglow, a coupling that’s really a mingling of isolations. The woman is Adam’s mother (played by Amalia Culp as a heartbroken waif), and suddenly the film enters the zone of small-town soap opera.
Patterson stages “Giants Being Lonely” as an early-summer mood painting of burnished light and shadow. He wants to show us life between the lines. Sometimes, though, you really want a filmmaker to sketch in the lines. When Adam, at a roller-rink party, asks Caroline (Lily Gavin) to the prom, and her madonna face practically beams yes, even though she’s been seeing Bobby, we’re eager to watch how that will all play out. But the film isn’t structured to confront the romantic rivalry, and Caroline herself isn’t viewed with the same searching gaze that the young men are. Adam’s home life is a horror, dominated by his father, who’s like the working-class-tyrant version of the Brad Pitt character in “The Tree of Life.” Gabe Fazio’s performance rings true (as the kind of guy who makes complimenting his wife’s cooking sound like a threat), yet you may still feel this is a character who gets a rise out of the audience too easily.
The film culminates, as it should, with a house party, and it’s one of the rare party scenes that actually seems like a reckless teenage bash. That is, you feel just how much everyone, spurred on by the booze, is occupying their own space. But the ending, which I won’t reveal, is a major miscalculation: I didn’t buy it for a second, and it violates the humanistic flow that’s the film’s key strength. The reason “Giants Being Lonely” didn’t need to get this dark is that it already showed us the darkness, wound into the light of day.