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Sundance 2011 Review: UNCLE KENT

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
January 28th, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5

WritersKent Osborne, Joe Swanberg
DirectorJoe Swanberg
Cast: Kevin BewersdorfJosephine DeckerKent Osborne

Sometimes, while someone may see a specific film if the title of “Sundance Official Selection” grace its DVD cover or theatrical poster, a stigma may also come along with that. To the untrained eye, many Sundance releases may come off as trite, neo-pretentious pieces of “art” film filmmaking, that rely on heavy handed themes instead of solid, interesting, or compelling narratives. However, then there are films like UNCLE KENT. Then there are films that actually work as something more than just a feature film. Even if that ultimately means a flawed, but compelling feature.

UNCLE KENT is the latest film from ALEXANDER THE LAST director, Joe Swanberg, and stars Kent Osborne as our lead, a pothead children’s cartoon show animator, who ends up having a woman he met from New York on Chatroulette over for a more than eventful weekend. A simple premise, for a simple piece of visual filmmaking, that ultimately culminates in quite a dense piece of narrative both structurally and thematically.

The film’s visual style is its true shining star. Swanberg, a member of the filmmaking fraternity within the world of mumblecore pictures, and this may be the cinematic manifestation of everything that that title stands for with regards to the visual form of film. Swanberg could care less for the quality of the film, often relying on relatively low-fi cinematography and videography, with the occasional Flip cam-like first person shots shot by the character of Kent himself.

Now, while most may find this visual style to be uninteresting or low-fi for the sake of being low-fi, there is a depth to these characters and to the way that they interact that seems to really work perfectly within this visually dingy looking world. There are the occasional visual flares as well, such as an awkward threesome, which really adds a lot to this film.

With a focus on a collection of relationships, the thing that will endear most with regards to UNCLE KENT is just how interesting and modern its take on relationships truly is. Featuring a pair of main characters, it looks at the inherent nature of modern relationships, and the lack of depth. In this Facebook, or this case Chatroulette, age, relationships have become based solely in superficial things. What is your favorite type of music? What is your favorite film? Things of that nature. And in UNCLE KENT, that’s tonally and narratively well crafted.  Toss in the inherent angst of being a sexually frustrated 40 year old, and you have the core of what UNCLE KENT is truly out to do.

Great performances really help make that all quite intriguing as well. Starring the film’s co-writer, Kent Osborne, the real star of the film’s cast is the character of Kate, played so wonderfully by Jennifer Prediger. A film so inherently focused on its relationships, she is one of the few truly believable characters within this film. She is in a relationship with another man, which may make what subsequently happens turn her into something of a narrative pariah, there is a sense of truth that is derived from this really engaging and truthful performance. Osborne is great here, but there is a lot riding on your ability to get past his character’s inherently off putting nature of neo-suspended adolescence. There is this sense that for some deeper reason, Kent doesn’t want to ever truly grow up, and while that’s not ever truly dug into, it does work.  There is even this weird sense of a lack of caring once our lead’s focal relationship completely fizzles away.  It may not seem like an enjoyable narrative, but it’s one of the truest pieces of cinema I’ve seen in quite some time.

Clocking in at a paltry 72 minutes, the film could have stood to be at least 18 minutes longer. There is a feeling of complete superficiality that extends not only from the film’s narrative, but into the way the film is crafted from its visual style to its length, that makes you care for the characters while the story is going on, but it leaves you a little emotionally disconnected when the film comes to an end.  Frankly, the 72 minute runtime is a gift, in that you really can’t extend this film out much longer without growing tired of the main character and the film’s themes, and a curse, in that it is utterly superficial in every sense of the word cinematically and narratively.

However, this is still a rather compelling, if standard mumblecore feature. The film lacks the depth of character that something like HUMPDAY crafted so perfectly, and a visual style that gave the same film some sort of crossover appeal, but it’s far from a poor film. Featuring a collection of really great performances, the film does take an interesting look at relationships and aging, and while it may be done without much depth of character, you still understand what is going on here. You just feel the same sense of ambivalence that our lead feels after his main squeeze departs. That in and of itself may be the film’s biggest sin.

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