Bass Ackwards has been, thus far, the unexpected gem of the 2010 Independent Film Festival Boston. Writer/director/star Linas Phillips’ winsome road trip movie has all the earmarks of a Rowlesian work of whimsy, a genre that I find particularly grating. Yet it’s done with such honest affection and bright-eyed optimism that, instead, I found myself completely captivated by it.
In the film, Phillips plays a version of himself, named Linas. He’s an affable loser, living on an air mattress in his friends’ study, finding pick-up work as a wedding videographer, and having an affair with Georgia (Davie-Blue), a married woman who can’t quite requite the emotion he’s invested in her. Unsurprisingly, this unsteady existence eventually comes tumbling down around him — his friends ask him to move out, Georgia passively ends their relationship, and Linas takes refuge working for a free room at a local llama farm. He idles his days away feeding and cleaning up llama dung until one day the farmer gives him a beat-up 1976 VW van, and Linas decides to set out from Washington to return home to see his parents in Boston (Phillips is actually from Boston). From there, it’s a series of quiet misadventures and encounters as he slowly plods his way across America.
The most notable encounter is of course with Jim (Jim Fletcher), a random stranger who simply gets in the van one morning when Linas wakes up. For reasons unknown, Linas accepts his new travel companion and all his quirks — Jim rarely sleeps, and has a penchant for urinating in sinks and stopping to look at barns — and for the first time, Linas is not alone. One had the sense that even when he was in Washington, with a woman he loved and living with his friends, he was still lonely, and Jim somehow fills that void. Jim’s trying to get back to New York to see his young daughter, and that happy coincidence results in an unlikely, yet completely charming new friendship between the two.
Bass Ackwards is a subtle, almost deceptive film. It’s uncommon to see a film where so little happens, yet so much of what does happen is critically important to Linas’s emotional growth. It’s a gently lovely film, as he meets and interacts with various people, while trying to keep the van alive and figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life. What’s so remarkable is that it is clearly a road trip movie, yet it avoids all of the conventions and tropes of the genre. He doesn’t get robbed, none of the strangers he meets (even the really strange ones) end up being some sort of crazy. He doesn’t get chased or have wild sexual escapades. Instead, he learns a little bit more about life and himself with each successive experience.
Phillips manages something else impressive with his script — he makes each of the people that Linas meets into whole, fully formed people that not only does Linas form a bond with, but whom the audience ends up sympathizing with. Each person has a full story, a life that you want to learn about. Each person seems to have suffered loss — of a wife, a child, a job. With each chance meeting, be it for a day or an hour, Linas discovers a tiny window into life through the unexpected kindnesses of these strangers. It sounds relentlessly cheesy, but I assure you it is not. Instead, it’s almost wondrous. This is aided by some lovely cinematography and a sparse, carefully chosen score that accents the film’s little moments.
Bass Ackwards is a film that doesn’t fit into easy categories — it’s funny but not a comedy, has moments of drama but isn’t dramatic. It’s not particularly exciting, and for the first 30 minutes I was convinced it was going to be one of those movies where nothing happens. And indeed, when compared to other films of its ilk, nothing really does. Not on the outside, anyway. There are no swelling musical crescendos as he finds love and happiness, no rainswept moments of passion, no massive melodramatic epiphanies. All of the critically important things take place within Linas’s fragile, almost childlike mind. He’s a sweet schlub who doesn’t have a plan beyond getting to Boston, doesn’t have a life or a sense of purpose. Yet through his experiences on the road he evolves into a more complete person than he ever was.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.