“Indie movies.” Maybe the term is overly-summative, but I think Second Breakfast writer Chris Melville captured the major cost-benefit of indie movies in his review of Short Term 12: there is artistic freedom that allows for something different, but that something different isn’t always successful. The writing, acting, and directing can vary substantially, and while most indie flicks tend to attract attention for existing at one of the poles in the awful– amazing spectrum, I was surprised to find one that is perched precisely in the middle.
The Kitchen (2012) was recommended to me by SciFriday writer Sarah Lawrence, and she sold it well: a single setting indie drama-comedy. Namely, I find the idea of a single-setting movie inherently intriguing, because the ability to tell a complete story in one location is difficult—whether you’re writing a movie or a stage play. This movie bridges the gap between those two media, in the sense that the utilization of a single location and the opportunities afforded by that space evoke the stage; less fortunately, The Kitchen sometimes feels like a series of one-act plays written by and starring college kids. A surprising number of scenes and characters show up once or twice and don’t have much effect on the narrative, and the hit-or-miss verisimilitude of both the writing and acting results in variable quality. The core cast—comprising Laura Prepon, Dreama Walker, Matt Bush, Tate Ellington, Catherine Reitman, and Bryan Greenberg—is solid, and the actresses/actors pull off even the weaker lines, but secondary characters are in general unbelievable, excluding a few delights like BriTANicK’s Alex Anfanger.
If you can’t tell already, this reflects a conflict with the very basis of this movie: The Kitchen doesn’t know whether it wants to be a “slice of life” piece about someone’s 30th birthday party with some dramatic tensions, or a narrative-driven story. The short bits of dialogue that have no impact on the central drama would imply the former, but the fact that there is a central drama—and that the story seems to revolve around it—would imply the latter. Thus, the extraneous bits are, well, extraneous; additionally, the primary conflict doesn’t really have an emotional resolution, simply a literal one. While I knew the movie was ending, I wasn’t satisfied. That would be fine if this were truly a “slice of life” piece, but it decidedly isn’t.
All of that being said, I really do like this movie. It has a charm to it that only people who vehemently hate anything related to hipster culture can write off. Most of the central characters are well-realized and -acted, and therein I have to return to the idea of college plays. They get a lot of flak, but sometimes you find nuggets of talent in both writing and performance, and to see them pulled off so phenomenally at an amateur level can make the experience even more enjoyable than similar work in a bigger production. As much as there were things that bugged me on a narrative level, the experience of watching this movie is enjoyable, and the fact that all those involved are trying something different puts this movie above several of its indie kin.
Before I wrap this up, though, there are two parts of this movie that I need to nitpick. First of all, there are a lot of jokes about people being gay or lesbian, which is obnoxious mostly because there are no LGBTQ characters in sight. The humor feels lazy and oddly conservative. One might argue that this is simply how people talk, but this movie goes out of its way to utilize the “Self-deemed ‘nice guys’ are actually assholes” trope, which—to me—implies the writers are lining their script up with social discourses of the time. Thus, the presence of these jokes is notably off-color. Moreover, the fact that this is mostly a narrative-driven film would go against the rebuttal that these jokes are “what everyday people say all the time”; this is, as I have covered, not a “slice of life” movie. Further, if we’re talking about reality, I would expect that at least some people at a relatively young party in a city would have some characters of varying sexuality, so that argument doesn’t hold for that reason as well.
My second nitpick is the use of mental illness. I am not against the idea of having characters with mental illnesses, obviously, but using it for humor—which this movie definitely does—does not sit well with me. More specifically, having the mental illness be the butt of a joke with zero insight into the character is distasteful. The fact that, on top of this, they end the movie SPOILER with the whole “mentally ill person is a brilliant artist” trope is cheap; I have no problem with the use of that trope in general, as long as it is built up to. You don’t make the character a joke and then attempt to tie it into a resolution by going, “See? We made fun of him, but he’s talented! Surprise!” END SPOILER
If I seem overly irked by those two qualms, keep in mind that I am calling them nitpicks for a reason: they did rub me the wrong way, but did not overwrite all of the good qualities of this movie. I wouldn’t nitpick a movie that is terrible. I want to reiterate that I actually really enjoyed this movie, and its successes make it both charming and a little daring; however, those do contrast with the flaws to create something that disappoints. Hopefully the next movie by director Ishai Setton can distill the successes and strain out the flaws.