Saturday, August 1, 2009

DVD: In THE NEW TWENTY, Chris Mason Johnson views college chums ten years on

When Chris Mason Johnson's first film, THE NEW TWENTY made its theatrical debut (in a very limited run) earlier this year, after playing several festivals and picking up awards in the process, it was greeted with better-than-faint-praise by the few critics who re-
viewed it. Now that it's out on DVD, it should easily find a larger audience -- and not just from the type of 30-
something crowd the movie covers (and very well) but from any audience on the look-
out for smart new work.

The New Twenty is a very smart film. Johnson -- who directed and co-wrote (with Ishmael Chawla) and won best first-time director at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Fest -- makes so many right choices and hits a symphony of right notes. He offers up his characters and story in swift, sharp strokes that define with subtlety and nuance. Here is a movie in which you consistently feel you understand all the characters -- and more important (and unusual) -- that they actually understand each other, if not themselves. It's surprisingly rare these days to find yourself watching a film in which you feel that the characters know and care for each other in a major way.

Beginning with a scene in college, as the group is photographed, the ensemble -- a young woman, her brother, her boyfriend and two of their best friends -- quickly ages a decade, and we find them all struggling with their career and love life (what else is there at age 30?). Every performer nails his/her role, including the fine supporting cast. Nicole Bilderback (shown above, left), who won outstanding actress in a featured role at last year's L.A. Outfest, has the central role of the one woman in the group and she's terrific. Smart and attractive in equal proportions, she holds the troupe together. Her now fiance, played by a slim and hunky Ryan Locke (shirtless, on the poster, top) is self-absorbed and usually puts himself first, not an endearing quality, certainly, but not a criminal one, either.

The brother, a beautiful young man played by the beautiful actor Andrew Wei Lin (above, left), has trouble committing. The two friends are essayed by Thomas Sadoski (shown, right, two photos above), a fellow with drug problems who's carrying a torch for Ms Bilderback (even in repose, Mr. Sadoski has one of the most expres-
sive faces currently to be seen), and a tubby schlubby, Colin Fickes (shown below) who is very funny -- and so real it hurts. In suppor-
ting roles are some always-wonderful standby actors like Larry Pine and Bill Sage (shown above, right) plus another actor new to me, Terry Serpico, who becomes the very energetic and nasty fly-in-the-ointment. Yet, no one's a real villain here. Johnson, too smart to fall for that cliche, knows that we're involved in our own downfall, enabling the snakes we connive with to do their wont.

The Johnson/Chawla screenplay is full of intelligent dialog that explains with little exposition and carries us from scene to scene, gradually building up a sense of time and place, character and motivation, that, by the finale, has brought together a viable portrait of everyone. There are really no missteps along the way, which is remarkable in a first film. (Sure, some things could be done better, but nothing falls flat.) Viewer complaints on Netflix and the IMDB generally accuse the film of featuring people who are not that "nice." Yeah? Grow up. Most people often aren't. These guys and their gal, despite their conflicting desires, come through for each other in the pinch (most of them, anyway), and that's what counts. The New Twenty may be a slice of yuppie life (perhaps it's these yuppie types that so bothers some viewers), but it's a very real one: beautifully written, directed and performed.

One of the unusual strengths of the movie is that it shows a group of friends in which gay and straight characters easily intermingle. But even here, Mr. Johnson is a realist: Note the scene in which the venture capitalist puts down the gay brother, to which the fiance offers only a very mild defense of his future brother-in-law. For more on this film and the man who made it, read the excellent interview with the co-writer/director on Indiewire.

The New Twenty was released to DVD a week or so back
Wolfe Video, a company that continues to
increase its range and raise its (and our) taste level.

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