I fell in love with this film from the very first shot (which precedes the opening credits). Katrina, (Carrie Brownstein) tells a video camera, and us, why she is the perfect castmate for The Real World. It commands our attention, yet is simple, both in form and content. The context will provide the weight. It is followed by a film awash in melancholy, but steeped in beauty (this is the Pacific Northwest after all).
Some Days Are Better Than Others examines what happens when you don’t have a bad day or a bad week, but when you might just be trapped in a bad year, or dare we wonder, a bad life? An impressively assured feature-film debut from Matthew McCormick (not surprising given his pedigree of short films and a roster of helming music videos for some of the best musicians in independent music), this film could be the first true masterpiece of the “hipster generation,” as it stars James Mercer, he first of The Shins, now Broken Bells, as Eli, and the aforementioned Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, now of Wild Flag, one of Rolling Stone’s 25 most-underrated guitarists of all time (the only woman on the list) and the co-creator and co-star of Portlandia. However, I don’t want to appear reductionist with the “hipster” label: one, because McCormick aims his lens and his story wider than guys in plaid shirts and women in oxford shoes (nothing against either, of course) and two, because you can’t dismiss this film as solely for the 20 to 30-something set that spends Saturday morning at the farmer’s market and that night sipping on PBR (in itself a gross over-simplification). I stand by my comment in the sense that Kerouac could be described as the diarist of The Beats, both for the moment he captured and also due to his approach, his distinct voice and vision, to his craft. Some Days are Better Than Others is poetry committed to screen, and it’s a beautifully rendered screen to look at thanks in large part to cinematographer Greg Schmitt.
Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the film is being released in small art house cinemas this April (mostly on the left coast), at a particularly apt time, as Portlandia just ended it’s much beloved first season. The film is almost an anti-Portlandia of sorts (and I adored that satirical gem of a show; it and Episodes are the best things to hit television in a while). The worrisome mayor in Portlandia, played by Kyle MacLaclan, insists that Brownstein and Fred Armisen, write an anthem for Portland, and not compare it to Seattle. He need not worry, as Portland commands respect as a hub of forward thinking independent music, television, and film, challenging modes favored in the film communities of Los Angeles and even the independent scene of my beloved New York.
In this look at the city, which in turn looks at emptiness and connection, in at times Buddhist sense of the terms, we meet Katrina, an employee at a dog shelter with a burning desire to be a reality star, Eli, a mid-30’s slacker with good intentions, deadpan honesty, and a hatred of jobs, Camille (Renee Roman Nose) a thrift store attendant facing an existential quagmire when she finds an object she must believe was never meant to be discarded, and Otis (David Wodehouse) a 84-year old experimental filmmaker who would very much like to have artistic recognition, but is perhaps the only one in the film to grasp the meaning of life- life in a “throw-away society”, populated by reality TV addicts and shows, as if it existence isn’t complicated enough on it’s own. All of the actors give the kind of understated performances that signify an understanding of the human condition. They’re amateur actors (though we can probably lose that adjective for Brownstein), but over-acting is the pitfall of a shoddy performance. And while Natalie Portman was incredible to watch as she, for lack of a better term, loses her shit in Black Swan, the challenge took place when she was timid and nervous, in the smaller gestures. These actors are masters at subtlety and inhabit their roles with no self-consciousness (difficult given the awkward nature of most of the characters), and many non-amateurs could take it as a lesson.
The film does not follow a three act structure, but if you haven’t noticed, neither does life. One critic in front of me dismissively deemed it a mumblecore. I have nothing against the genre, though making one now probably wouldn’t be seen as breakthrough (though it might be financially necessary). She is, however, wrong (take that elitism!). Incredible production value aside, it made me wonder if that’s become the go-to description for any filmmaker who features a certain age group and then dares to think outside either Hollywood script conventions (as do many lauded European films) or the, “it’s independent because it’s quirky” box.” These characters may have their quirks (most people do, thank goodness), but the film never falls back on it. It also has quite a bit of structure; its characters may meander or lack purpose, the film wants for neither. The sound design and the score are terrific (the term mumblecore derives from a production budget so small, the sound quality suffers). The music, especially and not surprisingly, is phenomenal. But don’t expect an indie rock soundtrack in the vein of Garden State. This is a true film score, from Matthew Cooper of Eluvium. It is lingering, ethereal, moody; so evocative it almost becomes a fifth character (And don’t you wish you could collect the opening music of Star Wars in your Pez collection? I do!).
Some Days are Better Than Others is startlingly real, honest, and profoundly moving. While many of the characters find that that life around them has become ugly, the world around them, and often their small actions, are still filled with awing beauty (as times, I recalled Syndromes and a Century). Of course, beauty is subjective, but as the camera lingers on leaves in the sun or or captures Camille on the jagged coastline, one would be hard pressed not to find it lovely. It’s a film of moments, many more meaningful than its’ characters know. It’s a harsh life, but it really is a beautiful one.*
Some Days Are Better Than Others screens at New Directors/New Films on Tuesday March 29th at 6pm at Walter Reade Theater and Wednesday 8:30 pm at the MoMA. Tickets here!
*(I actually skipped the press screening I was going to go to after this film. I wanted to sit and reflect on the beauty and meaning of what I’d just seen and experienced. I was going to be damned if anything got in the way of that, for at least a couple of hours.)