I hate writing scathing reviews of small, homemade independent films. It’s like kicking a puppy in half in front of a preschool class. Films like these aren’t going to get theatrical releases. And, from the overwhelming chorus of “Whooos!” that constantly burst from the capacity crowd at the Paramount Theatre, this is truly a labor of love. But, as much as I want to champion small film, this was not a good movie. Or maybe it gets better in the latter half, because I couldn’t even fucking last to the end. I rarely walk out of films. I stay to the bitter, bitter end, enduring far weaker plots and premises. But for some reason, blacktino just fed me up. My expectations might have been heightened — I was expecting some form of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I wanted Junot Diaz, and that’s not what was happening. I can forgive a weak script, I can forgive spotty amateur acting, but this … dammit. It was like a “Family Matters” episode spattered with broad fucking strokes of blatant racial stereotypes. I understand, filmmaker Aaron Burns is trying to push the envelope, but there’s a world of fucking difference between cutting clever social commentary and painting your face black and singing “Mammy” to get a rise. There’s a few funny bits, and a couple of smart setups, but they get overwhelmed by the need to be “racy.” This is Klan watercooler puns, not something you’d expect from a wicked smart filmmaker. I wanted so badly for blacktino to be a marvelously funny film, but somewhere between the tracking shot down the buffet of fried chicken and watermelon at the Baptist church scene with the loud preacher shucking and jiving like James Brown and the dumb hick coach going Ammurica all over the “slanty-eyed” Asian stereotype, I didn’t want to stick around to see how everything would come together.
Stefan Daily (newcomer Austin Marshall) is a big fat half-black, half-Latino nerd. We know this because he blogs and he wears thick glasses. We know he’s black because he wears a giant afro pick with a black power fist. Also because he lives with his grandmother because his parents are divorced and his black mother has been in either prison or rehab. The Latin part is less obvious, other than his real name is Esteban and his father is a filmmaker mashup of Robert Rodriguez and Michael Bay. (The Citizen Jane trailer with Michele Rodriguez doing an action-parody of Citizen Kane where she fires a machine gun in a pool of lava — that’s from this movie.) He’s fat because he’s always eating candy and soda. He’s got a caustic witted best friend named Laura (Devyn Ray), who may as well be labeled the future Mrs. Stefan.
The plot involves Stefan surviving high school while trying to temper his crush on the spoiled rich girl in his class. Aaron Burns wrote a couple of funny lines, but the problem is he knows they’re funny lines, and so he throws spotlights on them and its like he’s sitting next to you, nudging you with his elbow like “Pretty great line, eh? EH?” His characters waver between “a very special sitcom” sentimentality and overwhelming cliche stereotypes. When Stefan reunites with his mother, it’s awkwardly written. It’s as if Stefan midway through the scene remembers that he hates her, but then goes back to setting her up. His mother acts motherly and says genuine things, but then Aaron Burns hits her with the sassy black cattle prod, and she starts beginning her sentences with “Boy” and ending them with “Mmmhmm.”
Burns sets up clever concepts — like the football coaches teaching the advanced placement classes — which is hilarious and probably in a Texas school. And then, like with everything else, he pushes it over the line, off the cliff and keeps pushing it until you get sprayed in the face with the sweat of his efforts. Sure, a coach might be stupid, and maybe he mispronounces “Shakespeare.” But who the fuck mispronounces “Rye”? And then we have the coach who’s an overwhelming racist. Yeah, I get it, big tires, light them fires, love it or leave it, America Fuck Yeah. If he had written characters instead of punchlines, he would have gotten so much mileage out of the jokes. Instead, he tries to masquerade an Hallmark movie with the displays from the “Museum of Tolerance” “South Park” episode, and mistakes crappy for edgy. Crap doesn’t have edges. Unless you’ve got something wrong with you.
Aaron Burns is a local Texan filmmaker, and he’ll do fine. It’s a bad first movie. Most people make them in film school. But if he can learn from his mistakes and actually polish his characters and scripts, he could pull off a hell of a movie. There are plenty of funny moments in blacktino, especially the delightful Devyn Ray. But blacktino feels like a weak community theatre piece. It’s the kind of film locals come to see at SXSW because their friends are in it, and so you clap and cheer for them and not for the quality of the product. Now that he’s gotten this out of his system, I think Aaron Burns can write a real movie. And I’m pretty sure he’ll have better luck tomorrow. Or maybe he should just watch Better Luck Tomorrow and see how to make a racially-provocative movie without having to rely entirely on cliched stereotypes.
blacktino premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.