A bad joke and a terrible handjob lead to unlikely romance in International Falls. Directed by Amber McGinnis, the film centers on two strangers whose fateful meeting in a quaint Minnesota town proves life-changing and darkly hilarious.
Rachael Harris stars as Dee, a middle-aged, married mother-of-two who works at the local hotel but dreams of being a stand-up. Each week, another small-time comic lumbers through to play to the sparse audience of chipper locals. Each week, Dee stares at the mic, imagining herself behind it, but never having the courage to try. Instead, she’ll crack jokes with her co-worker about getting a uterus tattoo and how Canadians hecklers sling not insults but “constructive criticism.” But there’s a change in the air when touring stand-up Tim (Rob Huebel) blows into town. After a bit of awkward but funny banter, it’s clear there’s a spark between the two. It’s not that Tim’s charming. He’s not. He’s coarse, aggressive, and unkempt. But from the moment they meet, Tim and Dee can recognize a shared sadness.
Dee is the kind of woman I recognize from the small town where I grew up. She’s pleasant and friendly. But when disappointed, you can see her swallow her frustrations. The soft gulp combined with the tight-lipped smile speaks of a gnawing desperation with Dee. Tim doesn’t swallow his frustrations. He unleashes them on an unsuspecting audience, earning sneers and jeers. But that doesn’t deter Dee from going to his hotel room.
Their romance is as rough and uncomfortable as the handjob she’ll give him under an ugly hotel duvet. But there’s also a beauty in it. (The romance, not the handjob.) Because they are strangers and this is a one-night-stand, they can confess things about themselves they’d never tell their spouses or their friends. They share the sad truths of their shattered marriages, the disappointment in the lives they’ve haphazardly built, and an appreciation of the art of stand-up comedy. They are at different places in the last bit. Dee is dying to get in, and Tim just wants out. Before he retires, he plays her reluctant mentor, showing her how shabby hotel rooms have become his home, how to bomb before a baffled audience, how to write jokes, and some bleaker life lessons. Along the way, they’ll stomp on cell phones, wander along ice roads, make out, and confront their biggest troubles in very different ways. And every step, it’s hilarious and heartbreaking.
Despite starring comic performers and being about stand-up comedy, International Falls is grim in tone. The Minnesota town for which its name is beautiful but brutally cold. The chill apparent in thick winter coats and an awe-striking expanse of blindingly white snow reflects Dee and Tim’s feeling of isolation. Fittingly, their jokes are uncomfortable and biting, the kind that might make you twitch or bark with laughter. The script by Thomas Ward was based on his own time as a touring comic, which likely explains the grounded, observational humor that blisters with an aching loneliness. But there are moments of jaunting comedy here too, like a pair of fantasy sequences when Dee imagines what she’d do if she had a shot at her local rival. In these bits, director Amber McGinnis leans into a Coen Bros’ style of zaniness, which gives a vivid insight into Dee’s imagination, passion, and anger. Plus, both sequences boast a boldly macabre sense of humor, flawlessly landed by Harris, who is a marvel.
With an on-point Minnesota accent and the strained smile of a woman about to derail, Harris brings a stark vulnerability and savage comic timing to Dee. She’s instantly a woman you might recognize in your own life, from your work, your church, your family. She’s the cheery mom, supportive wife, friendly neighbor, funny co-worker. And beneath all that, there’s a rage, a sadness, and ambition that will no longer be ignored lest it swallows her whole. With the freedom of a new friend, she lets loose a side of herself she’s so-long ignored. And to witness Dee crack out of her shell with reckless flirtations and dirty jokes is utterly exhilarating.
Huebel proves her pitch-perfect scene partner, which frankly surprised me as I know him chiefly for playing a barrage of one-note smarmy guys in comedy shows. In International Falls, that niche is Tim’s starting place. Then, through bitter jokes and shrugged confessions, Huebel peels back the layers of this caustic comic to reveal a battered heart yearning for tenderness. That these two—both so guarded and wounded—let down their facades of pleasantness and snark to let each other in feels like a stupendous victory. Within that, McGinnis and Ward explore the less glamorous aspects of a life in show business and the gut-punching terror of realizing you might be mediocre. Through all of it, they orchestrate a melody that intertwines bittersweet drama, reckless rage, and wicked humor. And Harris and Huebel dance to this tricky tone without ever missing a beat. Together they are ferociously funny and thoroughly heartbreaking, making International Falls a stunning must-see.
International Falls played as part of the Bentonville Film Festival.
Header Image Source: Outskirt Media