Friday, December 27, 2013

Kyle Patrick Alvarez's C.O.G., w/Jonathan Groff, brings David Sedaris' story smartly to the screen

Another well-executed, intelligent, and very well-acted American indie film that met with lukewarm reception and quickly disap-peared from theater screens, C.O.G. is only the second work from a talented newcomer named Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who, with his first film Easier With Practice, and now this one, has given us two unusual, well-crafted movies that challenge the viewer in ways quite different from how critics and audiences alike respond to most American indies.

Sexuality is one of the major themes in both movies, but Mr. Alvarez, shown at left, approaches this obliquely. In Easier With Practice, his hero is drawn to a woman he meets via telephone. Only slowly -- then finally suddenly -- does he take the full measure of this person, as well as coming to terms with who he is (or might be). In C.O.G. (I guessed the meaning of this acronym pretty quickly, mostly likely because of my religious upbringing), our hero -- one of the most initially unlikable to be found in recent film -- is struggling with his sexuality, though he does not seem to be anything close to fully aware of this.

Alvarez based his screenplay on the story by David Sedaris (unread by me) and which is probably somewhat autobiographical. It follows a young man, David (played by the very good Jonathan Groff, shown above, on poster top, and below) from the east coast, distanced from his parents in both location and feelings, who takes a job picking apples in Oregon. An rather entitled little twat, he doesn't fit in with the rest of the migrant workers, nor does he even try, though he desperately wants, it eventually becomes clear, to somehow fit in somewhere.

David's fear keeps him from initiating much, though he follows along when others around him call the shots. These include an interesting co-worker, Curly (House of Cards' Corey Stoll, above, left), at the apple factory where he ends up working when the orchard proves too much...

...and an even more interesting Christian proselytizer named Jon (the always terrific Denis O'Hare, above, right), who takes David in, teaches him a skill, and expects some religious payback for his trouble. Also on view is the "perfect" nuclear family with whom Jon resides, which includes a lovely and helpful mom (played by Casey Wilson, below, in mirror)

Mr. Alvarez's handling of everything from the migrants to the apple factory workers (that's Dale Dickey, as the funniest of the bunch, below, right) to fundamentalism is thoughtful, truthful and specific. Class, sex and religion all figure in here, but instead of the usual knee-jerk stuff, we come away with some understanding of all the people involved, how they affect our 'hero" and what they expect from him.

Trouble is, David is simply unable at this point to open up to any of them, and especially not to himself. A movie that featured a hero more certain about who he is might have easily gone in any number of typical and probably satisfying directions. Our boy, nowhere near autonomous as yet, can't take any of these paths, and this is one of the things that makes C.O.G. so unusual and believable.

Audiences and critics alike these days seem to want their movies well-chewed and practically pre-digested. Something a little rough and raw they don't know what to do with or how to handle. A shame, really. This is why Alvarez's little film slipped so easily through the cracks. But in its quiet, unprepossessing manner, it speaks clearly to us -- about the mirror images of religion and hypocrisy, of the value of work and friendship, intimacy and sex, and of families real and arranged.

This is a lovely little movie, certainly no great mover or shaker, but something to watch, enjoy and learn from. I can't wait to see what Mr. Alvarez tackles next. Meanwhile, you can view C.O.G. now via Netflix streaming, on Amazon Instant Video and on DVD. (That's Dean Stockwell, at right in the photo above, giving another quietly fine performance as the apple orchard's kind-but-no-nonsense owner.)

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