There’s no shortage of small, independent films vying for audience attention throughout the year. Even little-known film festivals are flooded with hundreds (or thousands) of well-intentioned but essentially ordinary entries. Rare indie films that manage to break through the clutter typically possess two distinguishing qualities: characters that are in some way different from those we’ve seen on screen before, and the uncanny ability to make virtues of limited resources and modest scale.
First-time writer-director Josh Locy’s endearingly eccentric Hunter Gatherer fits that description like few films released last year. Winner of a Special Jury Award at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival and current nominee for a Spirit Award honoring the year’s best film made for less than $500,000, Locy’s movie builds a low-key, often-poetic tone that’s an ideal match for its human-size tale of unlikely friendship. It’s a small film with a big heart, but one that does not wear its heart on its sleeve.
The film’s title refers to Ashley (Andre Royo, Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins on David Simon’s The Wire), who has been released from a three-year stint in prison. Upon returning to his mother’s house and his south Los Angeles neighborhood, the 40-something Ashley discovers that no one is waiting to welcome him home. Things improve after Ashley meets Jeremy (George Sample III), who cares for his ailing grandfather and survives by serving as a test subject for a medical devices company. The duo launches a shaky business disposing of unwanted refrigerators.
That starting point offers few clues about where Locy wants to take us with his film. The cliches of gritty prison-release movies - drugs, violent crime, urban squalor - are nowhere in sight. Ashley’s circumstances are dire, but he maintains an effortless belief in the “power of positivity” and only wants to win back the girlfriend he lost when he went to jail. Jeremy is similarly devoted to his granddad. Each has a knack for taking each moment as it comes and trying to make the most of it. Bittersweet and often very funny, Hunter Gatherer finds meaning in hope, perseverance and the stuff of everyday life.
Royo makes all of that possible with a breakout performance in his first shot at a lead role in a film, finally shedding the albatross of his beloved Bubbles character. His unique presence grounds the film and provides needed authenticity, even as Locy veers into whimsical, 1970s-style double exposures designed to generate a loose, colorful vibe.
Hunter Gatherer has its flaws, including major plot devices that ultimately go nowhere, such as Jeremy’s quest to restore one of his grandfather’s crazy mechanical inventions. But the occasional randomness of events in the movie connects it to real-life experience, much as in the slow but realistically paced films of director Jim Jarmusch (whose work surely serves as a touchstone for Hunter Gatherer). Life is often messy and inexplicable, and it can be uniquely satisfying to see that truth artfully depicted on screen - especially in the form of an auspicious debut like this.
Hunter Gatherer begins an exclusive run tonight, Jan. 13 at Zeitgeist Films. More info here.