Directed by: James Humphries
Starring: James Humphries, Mara Simmons, Cory Boughton, Sandra Beckman, Jay Becknell
Like its titular hero, Vance ambles along in a wayward fashion that becomes ever more unsettling -- and that's both the problem and the strength of this home-grown production. What starts out as a slightly too-full-of-itself quirky comedy (of sorts) evolves into a sober examination of an alienated and disaffected college student.
Even while looking at the film on the sliding scale that must in all fairness be applied to projects of this kind, Vance is a frustrating work -- not in the least because aspects of it are as good as, and in many cases better than, anything I've seen made in similar circumstances with similar resources. First of all, the film would benefit immensely by losing about 15-20 minutes of its running time -- something that could be largely accomplished by tightening up the editing. (Note to young filmmakers: When someone leaves a room, it's rarely necessary for us to watch the door close; tighten your entrances and exits.)
Then there's the question of shot breakdown, a problem that has grown exponentially with the advent of video technology. In other words, folks, just because your camera can run almost endlessly doesn't mean it ought to. The one thing that tends to make video productions look like video and not like movies is less the inherent difference in the "look" of the two mediums than it is the tendency to set up a scene and film the whole thing in one take. (The cure for this may be a crash course in working with an old spring-wound movie camera where your maximum shot length is 20-35 seconds.)
Vance isn't the worst offender in this regard. In fact, it's one of the few such efforts I've seen that actually makes use of the ability to do long takes with its extremely clever and accomplished first scene. It's not perfect, but the film's extended opening is a small marvel of choreographic filming. That said, the overall film would move better with shorter takes and a heavier reliance on the basic vocabulary of film. It would also help to smooth over the fact that the acting is rarely more than acceptable, though the performances in Vance are generally several notches above average.
All that to one side, I liked Vance -- and not just because I immediately admire the fact of people just going out and making a movie against the odds. No. I liked it because of the things it gets right -- and there are quite a few things it gets pretty darn right. As a character study, it succeeds rather nicely, and the fact that it never quite tips its hand as to just where it's going helps to give it a cumulative power when it gets there. This is a movie with ideas and themes in its head, and that's something that is often forgotten by burgeoning filmmakers who are more interested in being cool than they are in saying something. By the time this film gets to the point where it takes a look at a possible alternate reality -- how things might have been -- it becomes something rare in homegrown filmmaking: It becomes moving.
Writer-director James Humphries pulls off a surprisingly effective portrayal in his role as the title character. This is even more surprising when you compare his early scenes with his later ones, because he takes Vance from a moody and not very likable cipher early on to a character we sympathize with in the latter portions of the film. Even more remarkable is the fact that this is done without actually telling us all that much about Vance, but it does tell us the essential thing -- what Vance wishes he could be.
Mara Simmons as the girl who might have made -- and almost does make -- a difference overcomes an awkwardness in her first scene to become quite appealing and likable, while Martin Snider evidences a nice and relaxed screen presence in a minor role. The photography by co-producer Cory Boughton is often creative and makes very good use of downtown Asheville locations (why do so few local filmmakers take advantage of this?).
Far from perfect, but as an example of what can be done with very little, and as a solid sample of what's happening on the local film scene, Vance is definitely worth your while. The film played a couple of weeks ago at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company and was sufficiently well received to warrant a second screening. Catch it this time.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke