The Straight Dope
Photo by David Axelbank
Greg Harrison’s Groove, an eager puppy of a movie about an impromptu rave party in an abandoned San Francisco warehouse, bristles with worthy drug cautions — you’d think this was a health club from all the bottled water being passed around. As if this weren’t enough, an implacably fit young raver wags her finger at a friend who’s well on his way to coma for failing to eat dinner before he got fucked up, while a disheveled freak announces that no way is he getting high tonight, unless a couple of beers will do the job. Groove makes the case for a manageable drug culture, which must have wowed the Sundance Film Festival’s burgeoning pipsqueak demographic this year as much as it did the programmers. I am too long in the tooth to know whether the vast majority of ravers do their Ecstasy with as much sense as sensibility, and for sure this movie will do little to quiet the jittery nerves of their parents. But who, as they say in acquisitions, gives a toss about them?
Groove invites us to pass a long night in the spontaneous, quasi-legal wing of the techno subculture, which would make for a great concert movie, if only Harrison were not also bent on summing up his generation through the soapy dramas of a small band of lost souls that shows up desperately seeking identity and community. The story turns on the fate of two potential couples. David (Hamish Linklater), a buttoned-up Midwesterner whose writing career is stalled in the doldrums of the software manuals he writes to make ends meet, hooks up with his apparent opposite, Leyla (Lola Glaudini, who played the administrative assistant on television’s NYPD Blue), a New York raver whose world-weary assurance is belied, wouldn’t you know it, by a chronic insecurity. David’s brother Colin (Denny Kirkwood), as impulsive as his older sibling is overly cautious, has just proposed to Harmony (Mackenzie Firgens), the flower-child girlfriend he’s just met, and from whom he’s keeping a secret he barely acknowledges himself.
Around this core group mills a busy army of peripheral characters who function as rhetorical flourishes in the movie’s strenuous reach for an even-handed view of the drug culture that’s integral to the techno scene. There’s a dealer who works by day as a teaching assistant and who prescribes vitamins to go with the dope he peddles; a token bad seed who uses with conspicuous irresponsibility; a Krupke-like cop (the movie’s lone adult) who threatens to close down the party; and the rave organizer, who’s in it only for the “the nod” of thanks he gets after a successful all-nighter. With all this free-floating altruism, enough social learning takes place during the night to fill a whole season of after-school specials, and given a screenplay to match (“no obstacles, only challenges”), Groove ought by rights to have sunk itself in the first act. Yet the movie is juiced precisely by that jagged asymmetry peculiar to the maiden voyages of young directors (especially those who, like Harrison, got their start in music videos and commercials) between precocious technical virtuosity on the one hand, and psychological innocence on the other. In this instance, Harrison’s naiveté is not entirely a drawback, for it mirrors the dilemmas of a generation worldly beyond its parents’ wildest dreams — and as emotionally at sea as any that went before it.
Not to mention hungry for old-fashioned durables like love and company. The real force of Groove is not the anxious PSAs for prudent drug use or the through-line, so clear from the beginning, that plays out which of the two couples will survive and why. (One of the film’s most amusing scraps — in which Ecstasy unleashes in the uptight David a carnal intimacy that excites and terrifies him in equal measure — is a frank endorsement of the drug’s power.) What gives the movie its coltish charm is Harrison’s scene-setting feel for the indomitable brio of kids who, outside of the Internet, have no legitimate place of assembly, yet manage to scare up a sense of community from the most ephemeral materials. A single e-mail spreads the word, the warehouse is hastily wired and gussied up, and the countdown begins for the arrival of 200 kids, decked out in cobbled-together generations of pop apparel, for a night with their folk heroes and heroines, the DJs (played mostly by the real thing) who still spin with vinyl. When the party is shut down, the ravers retreat, regroup and start over again, with all the brass and style of a generation that will survive by setting up home in the temporary.
In the final 10 minutes of José Luis Cuerda’s The Butterfly there surfaces something resembling the densities of human limitation. It’s 1936, and fascists are pouring out of the woodwork to smash the delicate republic that Spain has all too briefly enjoyed. In a small Galician village, a tight-knit family is forced to choose between its own safety and that of a beloved schoolteacher who scorns concealment of his republican sympathies. Watching as the teacher, wearing a suit lovingly tailored for him by the father, is flushed out of a building along with other local suspected communists, the family flags palpable agony that provides the movie’s only earned emotional tension.
The rest is Cinema Paradiso meets the Spanish Civil War. Moncho (Manuel Lozano), an excruciatingly pretty little boy with oversize ears and observant gray eyes that signal future filmmaker, is having one of those John-Boy Walton summers in which a lesson in freedom and integrity lurks behind every blade of grass, every encounter with the schoolyard bully, every eavesdropped exchange between a father and mother as politically polarized as they are united in love. And, lest we still don’t get it, the schoolmaster (played by Spanish veteran actor Fernando Fernán-Gómez, a dead-ringer for French actor Philippe Noiret and wearing the same shambling dignity) spells it out in the language of butterflies seeking nectar. The scenery, shot in the honeyed sepia of pure nostalgia, is stunning, the air thick with clichéd kiddie-POV. Little Moncho spies on a couple humping in a hayloft and concludes it’s silly stuff. He solemnly counsels an older brother who’s hopelessly in love with a married woman that nothing is gained when nothing is ventured. He blushes at the sight of a friend’s pretty sister swimming in her underpants. I roused myself from slumber just in time for the moment when — too little, too late — Moncho learns in the school of hard knocks about the human potential for betrayal. No doubt The Butterfly is Miramax’s latest hope for a repeat of the sleeper success enjoyed by The Postman. This trite, flabby picture doesn’t have a prayer, and it’s taking up precious space in the few remaining theaters that will still run foreign films with subtitles.
GROOVE | Written and directed by GREG HARRISON | Produced by HARRISON and DANIELLE RENFREW | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Sunset 5, NuWilshire
THE BUTTERFLY | Directed by JOSÉ LUIS CUERDA Written by RAFAEL AZCONA | Based on three short stories by MANUEL RIVAS | Produced by EMILIANO OTEGUI | Released by Miramax | At Music Hall
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