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Slamdance Review: Ambition & Narcissism Duel In ‘Diamond Tongues’

Slamdance Review: Ambition & Narcissism Duel In 'Diamond Tongues'

Edith (Leah Goldstein) is an actor. Or at least so she says. Even though she broke up with her boyfriend Ben (Adam Gurfinkel) in an effort to dedicate time to her career, her investment in the craft is casual. Her most notable stint was in a low-budget feature that didn’t get released, and she doesn’t have headshots or a reel of her work to give to producers or agents. She’s worn the status of a struggling actor like a badge of honor until her lack of success is no longer cute anymore. When acquaintances start getting callbacks for TV shows, and her best friend Clare (Leah Wildman) nabs the lead role in a play, Edith’s immature insecurity starts to surface in ugly ways. But things finally snap when she stumbles into an audition for a hilariously poorly named horror movie, “Blood Sausage,” only to discover that Ben, who has recently decided to pursue acting himself, has landed the lead role. “Diamond Tongues” isn’t your standard movie about making it, instead, it’s about what happens when everyone else does and you’re left behind.

But don’t feel too bad about Edith. Unable and emotionally unequipped to deal with the breakthroughs big and small her friends make, Edith’s self-centered and cruel narcissism comes to the fore. She quietly sabotages career opportunities for her friends, lies about the projects she has brewing, and, in a moment that speaks for itself, spends time masturbating while daydreaming about a future where she has a prime-time interview on a nationally televised talk show to discuss her newfound fame. Don’t let that bob haircut fool you, Edith is no manic pixie dream girl. Meanwhile, the one person she is able to maintain a friendship with is the always quip-ready Nick (Nick Flanagan), whose success isn’t threatening, because he’s just a staff writer, not a star, on the hit sitcom “Dog Husband.”

Co-directed by Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson, their Toronto-set drama intrigues by how unlikeable they are willing to make Edith. While indie cinema has no shortage of protagonists that are relentless assholes (see last year’s “Listen Up, Philip“), rarely are they women, and even more, it’s not often they are as complexly drawn as Edith. While she’s never relatable, there is something understandable about her perverse drive for validation and attention, even if she’s not particularly willing to work for it. “Diamond Tongues” touches upon a youth culture that takes their place in the pop culture spectrum as an inevitability. The difference is that while Edith can’t comprehend that her abilities aren’t immediately recognized, those around her humbly accept and celebrate each step up the ladder they take. “Diamond Tongues” is refreshing because it isn’t an indictment of a demographic, or even of Edith, but is a portrait of a young woman whose ambition has curdled into something more nasty along the way.

That said, there are times when Moondi and Robertson do push Edith’s reckless actions beyond believability. Particularly during the mid-section of the film, when Edith is isolated from the supporting players and goes through a dark night of the soul, it pushes her self-absorption into something bordering on self-harm. While there is a core loneliness to Edith that makes her distance from others understandable, this section sometimes blurs the character toward tragic, but those notes don’t seem at ease with the rest of the picture. Thankfully, “Diamond Tongues” recovers in the last act…mostly. The film falters at the end, aiming for a bravura finale of redemption, complete with a Big Moment Speech in which Edith monologues her way into understanding herself. This sudden realization is unearned for a character who, for the most of the running time, showed little to no interest or insight into her own behaviors. Edith is a sour kind of a person whom doesn’t just roll over on sweetness.

But for their first feature together, Moondi and Robertson make a lot of canny choices as storytellers and directors. The Toronto seen in their film isn’t one of known landmarks, but of smaller clubs and modest apartments. Indeed, this is one of the few films about working actors where you don’t immediately wonder how they are making their rent. The fact that the city remains invisible might be emblematic of budget, but it also suits characters whose dreams are anonymous in a metropolis where aspirations are numerous and success is hard fought. 

Dotted with songs by Islands, Timber Timbre, Broken Social Scene (along with a score by member Brendan Canning), Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, and Sunset Rubdown, “Diamond Tongues” certainly has an indie spirit beating in its heart. But Moondi and Robertson execute their film with the confidence of the kind of people that intimidate Edith. Like those around her in the film, this duo has taken a very good first step toward bigger things to come. [B]

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