It’s oddly appropriate that grief-stricken widower Ted (David Sullivan) spends most of Jack C. Newell’s “Monuments” schlepping his wife’s ashes around the geographical midpoint of the continental U.S.A. This dippily surreal existential comedy — imagine Quentin Dupieux engineering a head-on collision between “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Little Miss Sunshine” — feels like it’s born of the exact middle ground between the big-budget escapist mainstream and the hardcore arthouse “coasts” of American cinematic output. It’s in a flyover state of mind.
Any other year, no big deal — there has traditionally been no shortage of Sundance-y, SXSW-y low-budget American filmmaking to which the awful adjective “quirky” can be applied. But right now “Monuments” — which at least has no smirk in its quirk — getting a theatrical release makes a hopeful, daffy case for the U.S. indie still having a role to play in the polarized post-pandemic movie landscape.
As with any road movie, Newell’s fourth feature unfolds in episodes and interludes, but a non-chronological structure and David Burkart’s disruptive, gonzo editing keep things pacy and constantly refreshed. So as it begins, while Ted is already on his frazzled way to Chicago in a stolen truck with the ashes of his wife Laura (Marguerite Moreau) in a battered pink lockbox on the passenger seat, he’s also remembering their relationship. And so in between encounters with a wide variety of improbable roadside eccentrics, their story unfolds as a series of extended flashbacks.
At the time of her drolly unglamorous death in a crash while trying to rid her car of a fly, Laura had just reunited with Ted after a separation, and together they were planning to move back to Chicago to embark on a new, revitalized chapter away from Laura’s weird Coloradan family. Now that she’s gone, however, the family, including her hard-nosed Momma (Kathy Scambiatterra), sympathetic cop brother Grant (Keith Kupferer), catty sister Crystal (Paulina Olszynski) and Howl (Javier Muñoz), a guy she went on a single date with who somehow believes they were therefore a couple, want to scatter her ashes, per family tradition, down a well.
Ted, a lecturer in antiquities in the local college, has taken to carrying the ashes around with him, before Howl steals them from him, whereupon Ted steals them back, along with Howl’s truck. He has decided to spread the ashes in Chicago’s Field Museum, a place that meant a lot to both of them, but being the classically clueless, indie movie manchild that he is, not to mention having macho doofus Howl on his tail, Ted needs help. Just in time, Laura — or some manifestation of her that only Ted can see — shows up to guide the way.
There’s not a lot here that’s wholly new, and the film’s tone of melancholy, offbeat uplift signals from the outset that we shouldn’t expect any grand revelations. Instead its pleasures come in smaller packages, in an unexpected dance scene that happens when sultry stranger Amber (Shunori Ramanathan) sidles up to Ted in a bar, or in a brief shadow-puppet-style animated sequence that illustrates the Egyptian conception of the afterlife. And the craft is excellent: Stephanie Dufford’s delightful cinematography makes the most of pretty landscapes and silly Tom-and-Jerry slapstick antics alike. Sullivan’s hangdog appeal as Ted plays well off Moreau’s Laura, who makes for an unusually sardonic ghost, and there are a couple of fun cameos from Chicago improv mainstays Joel Murray and Dave Pasquesi. Best of all is the terrific rambling, rousing soundtrack from musician Takénobu whose jangling-jalopy tunes give a whole new dimension to the film’s off-kilter universe.
Not all of it works. There’s a slightly twee over-reliance on colorful trinkets: a lucky quarter, a model plastic dinosaur from a vintage Mold-a-rama machine, a tacky yellow handbag, a hot pink bouncy ball. Some flourishes, like the Airstream-style trailer bedecked in fairy lights where Amber lives, feel pulled from the Big Book of Indie Movie Art Direction. Others, like a glove compartment full of acorns or a van driven by three helpful young women who repeat Ted’s words back to him in song, verge on the exasperating. But with such a zippy rhythm, nothing has time to overstay its welcome, a quality that extends right across the film’s snappy 94 minutes.
It’s a very modest movie to choose as a flagship venture. And yet Pittsburgh cinema Row House is using Newell’s film to launch their new-model indie distribution arm, at a moment when this sort of project’s theatrical future seems more imperiled than ever. And so maybe “Monuments” is the perfect, vertically integrated choice: It too details a possibly quixotic mission, but one embarked on with such loopy bravado and sincerity that you cannot help but wish it well.