American Reunion (May 28/04)
Oddly enough, American Reunion was actually released three years ago under the tenets of Dogme95 (meaning the filmmakers had to eschew things like props and non-diegetic music). But, as we learn at the film's close, sometime between 2001 and now, the decision was made to abandon the ultra-naturalistic tone required by Dogme95 in favor of decidedly filmic vibe. Not having seen the original, it's impossible to compare the two versions - but it's probably a safe bet that American Reunion is the better film. If nothing else, the fantastic soundtrack (accompanied by Jeffrey M. Taylor's effective score) is enough to applaud the switch to a more traditional narrative.
As indicated by the title, the story involves several characters that converge on the small town of their youths for a high school reunion (their 20th). Organizing the event is the town's mayor, Margaret (Marlene Forte), who was also a student in the graduating class of 1981. The two other locals attending are Mindy (Rainer Judd) and J.C. (Andres Faucher), the latter of whom is still stinging from the death of his much-loved brother. Coming into town are Brad (Billy Wirth), Jeanie (Jennifer Rubin), Patrick (Dwire Brown), and Ty (Corey Glover) - all of whom have something in their past their not keen on revealing.
The resulting film plays out like The Breakfast Club, 20 years later - with the various characters chatting about anything and everything, taking their time to reveal the secrets that haunt them. The two things that really matter with a film of this sort are the believability of the characters and the effectiveness of the dialogue (the latter is especially important, since there's not much of a story to fall back on). The script (by Kimberly Shane O'Hara) forges a path of originality early on, taking an assortment of characters that could've been rife with clichés and - for the most part - imbuing them with distinct and intriguing qualities.
The most compelling figure is Patrick, a recently-retired military officer who spends the bulk of his screentime reuniting with his father (played by Steve Gilborn). Actor Dwire Brown does a nice job of embodying this character that's struggling with his own identity, to the extent that it's easy enough to picture an entire film built around his character. Judd and Glover are just as effective in their respective roles, with Glover given a dynamite scene in which he meets his 20-year-old son for the first time.
While it's impossible to fault the performances, the characters of Brad and Jeanie aren't quite as developed as we might like. The background on Brad - though he's the kid everyone was sure would amount to something, he's evidently floundered and now makes a living as a bus driver - certainly holds promise, but the character never quite steps beyond the realm of bitter cliché. And despite an interesting performance from Rubin, Jeanie's odd quirks remain inexplicable for the majority of the film (until a big reveal at the end, which isn't quite big enough to account for her oddball behavior).
Co-directors Mark Poggi and Leif Tilden, along with cinematographer Patricia Vanover, nicely disguise the obvious low-budget with some surprisingly impressive visuals (Taylor's aforementioned score perfectly complements the lush look of the movie). The resulting film is consistently entertaining and surprisingly moving, and clearly deserves a wider audience than it's likely to get.