What happened to independent film? Of late I find myself pining for the woebegone days when guerilla filmmakers produced colorful and rebellious forays into the avant-garde like Harmony Korrine's Gummo or Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny. Sure, some of them were disasters but they were interesting disasters. In the last half of the first decade of the new millennium a style of independent cinema has emerged that, in its dreary conformity, reflects the formulaic output of Hollywood at its worst.
Here are the basic ingredients: 1) painfully ordinary characters doing painfully ordinary things; 2) dramatic statements uttered at inappropriate moments; 3) lengthy close-ups of characters staring off into space, their glazed eyes swollen with mournful reminiscence; 4) numerous musical interludes; 5) stylish handheld camera work with every frame over-saturated; 6) an absurd amount of attention to insignificant details. Now, mix these all together and -- voila, you've got yourself an indy flick!
Nurse.Fighter.Boy, though it resembles a dot com address, is actually the title of African-Canadian director Charles Officer's newest film. Unfortunately, it uses all the aforementioned ingredients -- yet another grain of sand in the independent cinema desert. The skeletal plot intertwines the lives of three central characters: Jude, a nurse battling sickle-cell anemia (Karen LaBlanc); her twelve-year old son, Ciel (Daniel J. Gordon); and Silence (yes, that's his name!), an aging boxer (Clark Johnson of the critically acclaimed HBO series, The Wire). After Jude treats a cut Silence received during an illegal fight and the two share approximately four lines of dialogue, they spontaneously fall in love. They have what appears to be only a few days to enjoy their newfound romance before Jude coughs up blood and subsequently dies. Ciel cries and breaks stuff while a stoic Silence looks on. In the film's final moments, Silence inexplicably adopts Ciel and takes him on a trip to the Caribbean. If this sounds bewildering, just see the movie, where it makes even less sense.
Despite the melodramatic and incoherent events that constitute the plot, one leaves the theater with the impression that nothing has happened. This is most likely because the film, which is intended to be a character study, fails to create a single relatable character -- the occupants of this celluloid landscape are half-baked sketches still waiting to be fleshed out. Jude is so ludicrously pure of heart she seems a saint merely clothed in human skin -- a matter of fact, when she dies three women in white robes, presumably angels, come to personally collect her. Silence, who blathers on about "one last fight" with the dogged sincerity of a recent twelve-step program graduate, is your average broken man, desperate for redemption. And last but not least, Ciel is just a boy who loves his mother. He also dabbles in music and magic; these are the sort of details that should add weight and depth to his character but because their exploration is so perfunctory their inclusion seems pointless.
Throughout the duration of the film, there are several missed opportunities to enrich the characters' inner lives. The most interesting (and subversive) example is the intense closeness shared by Jude and Ciel. The boy, who one must remember is on the brink of adolescence, bathes his nude mother with a sponge, massages her feet and cuddles next to her in bed. Is there something unhealthy about this? Something borderline Oedipal? I wish -- at least that would have been interesting! Instead, the film suggests this is perfectly normal behavior, on par with buying a gallon of milk or watching TV sitcoms. There are no allusions to these acts later on, no unwholesome glances sneaking across the character's faces, nothing at all to suggest anything out of the ordinary has happened.
The only exceptional aspect of the film is its soundtrack, which adds an unearned emotional punch to certain scenes. It is a shame that the background beat of African drums serves as substitution, as opposed to amplification, of the heartbeats of the characters that populate this creation.