'Downtown Owl' review: Lily Rabe is the radiant center of a small-town tragicomedy bungling

‘Downtown Owl’ review: Lily Rabe is the radiant center of a small-town tragicomedy bungling

Some movies, many movies, are less than the sum of their parts. The owl of the center, the story of a rookie teacher’s fussing, drinking, and heartfelt awkward encounters in a fictional North Dakota town, has the distinction of being exactly the sum of its parts. It’s not a hit; those ingredients are never less than engaging, driven by a playful, dynamic cinematic sensibility and a strong cast, Lily Rabe holds center with vibrant luminosity and comedic chops to spare. Rabe also takes the helm of the film, together with his life partner and fellow actor Hamish Linklater, and rookie directors manage to thread a complicated needle with their first feature film, navigating the abyss and the overlap between the agitated and the silent, between the luminosity of cartoons and angst.

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The source material, essayist Chuck Klosterman’s 2008 novel of the same name, isn’t so much a compelling narrative as a vivid collection of personality types filtered through a hyperlocal 1980s vibe. Hamish’s screenplay filters out most of the pop culture commentary to focus on character, putting a Great Plains spin on familiar indie tropes: misfits, misbehavior, breakdowns, and discoveries. The white prairie blizzard that halts the story casts a shadow of the hand of fate that glides across the background of the variously whimsical and sad events, its impact rising to the surface and making itself fully felt in the sunny shot of the film -Closing sequence of the plexus.

The owl of the center

The bottom line

A hoot, and full of heart.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Lily Rabe, Ed Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, August Blanco Rosenstein, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wittrock, Henry Golding, Arianna Jaffier, Hamish Linklater, Arden Michalec, Ben Shaw, Emma Halleen
Directors: Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater
Screenwriter: Hamish Linklater; based on the novel by Chuck Klosterman

1 hour and 32 minutes

The main action begins in September 1983, as Rabe’s Julia Rabia arrives at tiny Owl for a semester-long high school teaching job, having been recommended to the principal (a short comic turn of Linklater) by her professor father. The timing of this period, she enthusiastically tells nearly everyone she meets, is designed to give space to her (unnamed, unseen, unheard) husband as he enters the last few turns of his doctoral thesis at Milwaukee. More than the blizzard, this is the shadow hanging over the story: how much of Julia’s marriage, including the possibility of having children, depends on her spouse’s career plans as he aims for the role.

The disconnect between them is as clear as rural daylight in its drunken late night calling home. If you’ve been mourning that classic cinematic device of the one-sided phone call – the stuff of indelible cinematic moments down the ages, whose power simply can’t be matched by screen glances to text messages – Hamish’s screenplay revives the tactic, and Rabe delivers exquisite work in Julia’s tense conversations with her husband, father and mother, culminating in a heartbreaking sequence as she hovers precariously over the edge, or possibly the bottom.

In the novel, Julia and the other two main protagonists – a student and a regular septuagenarian diner – do not interact; here, to varying degrees, they do. The two sensitive males are played to understated perfection: August Blanco Rosenstein as sad-eyed Mitch Hrlicka, the school’s reluctant backup quarterback, and Ed Harris as Horace Jones, whose life of quiet routine is shaped around a shocking turn of events on the home front.

As for the other men in town, Julia gets an eye-opening introduction on her first visit from Hugo, a downtown watering hole the principal has warned her to avoid. For fellow faculty member Naomi, played by Vanessa Hudgens in a delightfully rude mode, Hugo’s is the center of the Owl universe. Minutes after her first appearance in the bar, Julia meets a slew of lonely single men with alarming nicknames, two of whom are set to drive her to Valley City just this weekend to see ETthat year-old blockbuster they’ve heard so much about.

But when handsome bison rancher Vance Druid (Henry Golding) walks into the bar with his cowboy hat and Wranglers, Julia goes into a new state of alert. Heeding Naomi’s admonition to “start living a little,” she makes the move of her own. Rabe is in full comic flux with Julia’s hesitant openings, and the friction is heightened by subtitles in the form of neon signs labeling the contrast between what he says to Vance and what he really means. It’s a clever way to underline the gap between his awkward-exuberant openness and his extreme reserve. But after a few promising if lopsided exchanges, Julia takes that reservation of hers as a rejection of hers, her deep disappointment in Vance fueled in part by her unspoken anger at her husband.

Like Mitch, who prefers basketball to the gridiron – a blasphemous fondness in the football-loving owl – Vance has a mostly unhappy bond with the high school quarterback. Julia learns this backstory of tangled infamy and glory from Horace, who also breaks his generally level-headed demeanor to denounce the school’s coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock) as a “bona fide sex offender.” Mitch embarks on a mission to hold Laidlaw accountable for impregnating his classmate Tina (Arden Michalec), a mission that seems disjointed for the character and for the film. He is aided and abetted by fellow students Eli (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose feverish hyperverbalism resembles that of Naomi, and Rebecca (Arianna Jaffier), an avowed genius who whispers in public settings like Julia’s classroom.

The story threads may feel convoluted as well as disjointed, but whether they come together with the utmost fluidity matters less than how the characters’ disparate and conflicting modes of communication reveal more and more about them. In this portrait of a remote, insular place, the machine-gun talkativeness of both Eli and Naomi bare a spectacular self-confidence, yet tinged with desperation and thrives on conflict of the high school melodrama genre.

That Rabe and Linklater, accomplished veterans of theater and screen, have drawn such nuanced work from their cast is no surprise. But they did much more as helmsmen, with judiciously spaced meta touches that strike intended chords and a fluent visual language for this made-up small-town world (portrayed from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area). In their lived-in details and in their touches of the sublime, the contributions of set designer Francesca Palombo are superb. And the cinematography of Barton Cortright (known for his formalist work with Ricky D’Ambrose, including Cathedral) makes use of widescreen shots in ways that refute rural clichés and embrace the slightest touches of the surreal.

All about The owl of the center it is both earthy and heightened, many of its scenes fueled by the unexpected intertwining of pain and hilarity, or anger and aching sweetness. Take the long shot of a conversation in the school gymnasium between Tina and Mitch, with nearly everything between them left unsaid, or the striking diamond-shaped window at the head of an invalid’s bed, like a doorway between flesh and spirit. And with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the score is an inspiring and evocative mix of Americana and, above all, Elvis Costello, the latter being the only recording artist a key figure listens to.

If the characters’ missions of intrigue aren’t always crystal clear, Julia Rabia’s unraveling packs a narrative punch. Rabe, who so memorably played the title role in Miss Stevens – played a high school teacher who is in danger of making bad decisions – she dives here with gusto. So does Julia, decked out in teased hair and skintight clothes, waiting for Vance to walk through the door at Hugo’s as the bartender (Ben Shaw) praises her “stripper look.”

In The owl of the center, Rabe and Hamish capture an inward-looking world exploding. And Rabe’s performance gives us someone bouncing off the narrow city walls and starting to find herself in the process, advancing from self-blaming facial gymnastics after every perceived misstep to a drunken slump on — where else? — the high school soccer field. Perhaps never so much remembering her mother, Jill Clayburgh, as she does here, imbues the film with a heartbreaking brilliance. Who better to listen when Golding, the broken and hurt man of few words, confides that “I thought my life would be better than it is”? Who better to make him smile?