Some movies — many movies — are less than the sum of their parts. Downtown Owl, the story of a newbie teacher’s flailing and drinking and heartfelt, awkward encounters in a fictional North Dakota town, has the distinction of being precisely the sum of its parts. That’s not a knock; those ingredients are never less than engaging, driven by a playful and dynamic cinematic sensibility and a strong cast, Lily Rabe holding the center with vibrant luminosity and comic chops to spare. Rabe also steers the movie’s helm, alongside her life partner and fellow actor Hamish Linklater, and the tyro directors manage to thread a tricky needle with their first feature, navigating the chasm and the overlap between agitated and quiet, between cartoon brightness and angst.
The source material, the 2008 novel of the same name by essayist Chuck Klosterman, is not so much a riveting narrative as a vivid collection of personality types filtered through a hyperlocal 1980s vibe. Hamish’s screenplay strains out most of the pop-culture commentary to focus on character, putting a Great Plains spin on familiar indie tropes — misfits, misbehavior, breakdowns and breakthroughs. The whiteout prairie blizzard that bookends the story casts a hand-of-fate shadow that slips into the background of the variously wacky and sad goings-on, its impact rising to the surface and fully felt in the movie’s shot-to-the-solar-plexus closing sequence.
The Bottom Line
A hoot, and full of heart.
The main action begins in September 1983, when Rabe’s Julia Rabia arrives in tiny Owl for a one-semester teaching job at the high school, having been recommended to the principal (a brief, comic turn by Linklater) by her professor father. The timing of this stint, she overeagerly tells nearly every grown-up she meets, is designed to give space to her husband (unnamed, unseen, unheard) as he enters the final laps of his doctoral thesis back in Milwaukee. More than the blizzard, this is the shadow that hangs over the story: the way so much of Julia’s marriage, including the possibility of kids, hinges on her spouse’s career plans as he aims for tenure track.
The disconnect between them is as clear as rural daylight in her inebriated late night calls home. If you’ve been mourning that classic cinematic device of the one-sided phone call — the stuff of indelible movie moments through the ages, the power of which simply can’t be matched by onscreen glances at text messages — Hamish’s screenplay revivifies the tactic, and Rabe delivers exquisite work in Julia’s strained conversations with her husband, father and mother, culminating in a wrenching sequence as she hovers precariously over the edge, or perhaps the bottom.
In the novel, Julia and the other two main protagonists — a student and a septuagenarian diner regular — don’t interact; here, to varying degrees, they do. The two sensitive males are played to understated perfection: August Blanco Rosenstein as sad-eyed Mitch Hrlicka, the school’s reluctant backup quarterback, and Ed Harris as Horace Jones, whose life of quiet routine is shaped around a shattering turn of events on the home front.
As to the other men in town, Julia receives an eye-opening introduction on her first visit to Hugo’s, a downtown watering hole that the principal has warned her to avoid. For fellow faculty member Naomi, played by Vanessa Hudgens in delightfully rude motormouth mode, Hugo’s is the center of the Owl universe. Within minutes of her first appearance in the dive bar, Julia meets a slew of lonely single men with alarming nicknames, two of whom are ready to take her to Valley City this very weekend to see E.T., that year-old hit movie they’ve heard so much about.
But when dashing bison rancher Vance Druid (Henry Golding) enters the bar in his cowboy hat and Wranglers, Julia shifts into a new state of alertness. Heeding Naomi’s admonition to “start living a little,” she makes her move. Rabe is in full comedic flow with Julia’s halting overtures, and the friction is heightened by subtitles in the form of neon signs labeling the contrast between what she says to Vance and what she really means. It’s a smart way of underlining the gap between her goofy-exuberant openness and his extreme reserve. But after a few promising, if lopsided, exchanges, Julia takes that reserve as rejection, her profound disappointment with Vance fueled in part by her unexpressed anger at her husband.
Like Mitch, who prefers basketball to the gridiron — a blasphemous predilection in football-worshipping Owl — Vance has a mostly unhappy connection to high school quarterbacking. Julia learns of this backstory of tangled infamy and glory from Horace, who also breaks his generally even-tempered demeanor to denounce the school’s Coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock) as a “bona fide sex criminal.” Mitch embarks on a mission to hold Laidlaw accountable for impregnating Tina (Arden Michalec), the classmate he’s in love with — a mission that feels disjointed for the character as well as the movie. He’s aided and abetted by fellow students Eli (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose feverish hyper-verbalism recalls Naomi’s, and Rebecca (Arianna Jaffier), a self-declared genius who whispers in public settings like Julia’s classroom.
The story strands can feel convoluted as well as disjointed, but whether they come together with the utmost smoothness matters less than the way the characters’ disparate, clashing modes of communication reveal more and more about them. In this portrait of a remote and insular place, the machine-gun loquaciousness of both Eli and Naomi lays bare a spectacular self-confidence, but one that’s tinged with desperation and thrives on conflict of the high school melodrama sort.
That Rabe and Linklater, accomplished veterans of stage and screen, have drawn such nuanced work from their cast is no surprise. But they’ve done much more than that as helmers, with judiciously deployed meta touches that strike the intended chords and a fluent visual language for this invented small-town world (played by the Minneapolis-St. Paul area). In their lived-in detail and their touches of the sublime, production designer Francesca Palombo’s contributions are superb. And the cinematography of Barton Cortright (known for his formalist work with Ricky D’Ambrose, including The Cathedral) makes use of wide-screen framing in ways that refute rural clichés and embrace the barest touches of the surreal.
Everything about Downtown Owl is both earthbound and heightened, many of its scenes fueled by the unexpected entwinement of sorrow and hilarity, or anger and aching sweetness. Take the long-shot view of a conversation in the school gymnasium between Tina and Mitch, with nearly everything between them unsaid, or the striking diamond-shaped window at the head of an invalid’s bed, like a gateway between flesh and spirit. And with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the soundtrack is a bracing and evocative mix of Americana and, crucially, Elvis Costello, the latter being the one and only recording artist a key character listens to.
If the characters’ hyped-up missions of intrigue aren’t always crystal-clear, the unraveling of Julia Rabia packs a narrative punch. Rabe, who so memorably inhabited the title role in Miss Stevens — she played a high school teacher in danger of making some very bad decisions — dives in here with gusto. As does Julia, dolled up with her hair teased and her getups skintight, waiting for Vance to walk through the door at Hugo’s while the bartender (Ben Shaw) commends her “stripper look.”
In Downtown Owl, Rabe and Hamish capture a self-enclosed world that’s bursting at the seams. And Rabe’s performance gives us someone bouncing off the narrow town walls and beginning to find herself in the process, advancing from self-rebuking facial gymnastics after every perceived faux pas to a drunken meltdown on — where else? — the high school football field. Perhaps never so much recalling her mother, Jill Clayburgh, as she does here, she imbues the film with a heartrending radiance. Who better to listen when Golding’s broken, hurting man of few words confides that “I thought my life would turn out better than it is”? Who better to make him smile?
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