“Do you know the difference between looking at someone and staring at them?” Claire (Eve Harlow) asks the question rhetorically, because it’s obvious to her — and to us — that the guy who’s been gawking at her from the candy aisle of her convenience store doesn’t have the slightest clue. Chris (Jesse Camacho), it’s easy to extrapolate, is so used to being stared at that he’s likely forgotten how people prefer to be seen.
The trembling heart of Jesse Klein’s smart, sensitive and instantly engaging second feature (2010’s “Shadowboxing” was his first), Chris only wishes that he could be as invisible as he feels. Living with his mom in a dreary Montreal suburb, the unambiguously overweight twenty-something is hard not to notice but easy to ignore, and so many of his interactions turn sour that he would rather retreat into himself than try opening up. For better or worse, Chris is about to collide with someone who isn’t going to let him do that anymore.
If “We’re Still Together” sounds like it has the makings of a white Canadian “Precious” (to whatever degree such a thing is possible), Klein quickly swerves the film in another direction, steering things towards a story that more resembles a Duplass brothers remake of “Collateral” (minus all that “contract killer” business). The movie is only a few minutes old when Chris — suffering through yet another vicious bout of bullying at the hands of a kid who spits in his mouth and promises that “I’m going to tell you what nobody wants to tell you: You’re disgusting” — is rescued by a mysterious bystander. Played by Joey Klein, the director’s older brother, Bobby is a confident and charismatic loose cannon who has no problem putting Chris’ abuser in a vicious headlock. Bobby offers Chris a ride home, the shaken victim accepts, and the odd couple drives off into one of those nights that will force both of them to confront their demons.
A resourceful micro-budget affair that works as a drama but will likely prove most effective as a calling card, “We’re Still Together” is shot with the same sensitive haze and seriocomic tone that defines so many recent indies, but it muscles its way above the masses on the strength of its unpredictability. In broad strokes, it’s true that you’ve seen these stories before: The isolated loner who learns how to respect himself, the stranger who’s way too cool not to have some of his own shit brewing beneath the surface. These are familiar types who follow familiar character arcs, but Klein’s movie pushes them along with the banal unpredictability of real life, and their stories feel bracingly human as a result.
It helps that Chris, who’s in desperate need of a good time, never fully drops his guard (Camacho’s nuanced performance never sinks into caricature). And it helps that Bobby, who has a slightly unhinged glint in his eye, never becomes too threatening. Looking like a young Alex Winter who’s clenched from an ongoing coke high (with a noir-ish touch of Robert Mitchum for good measure), Bobby is manic and vaguely dangerous, but also clever in how he tries to goad Chris out of his shell. One of the first things he asks the helpless man-child is if he’s married, and the idea that someone would even entertain the possibility is a sharp vote of confidence. Bobby, for his part, is married — he wears a wedding ring, at least — and his genial pre-teen daughter (Brielle Robillard) nudges things in an interesting new direction when she enters the story at the halfway point. The warmth she shows towards her dad clarifies his crisis, complicating his character in all the right ways.
Chris also has a girl in his life, even if she doesn’t know his name. Claire is his crush, and she epitomizes how the film consistently sidesteps the obvious without feeling contrived. There’s something suspicious about how surprisingly amenable she is to Chris’ advances (Harlow works subtle wonders in just a few minutes of screen time), and Klein bakes that sense of doubt into the fabric of this tiny movie, glazing it with a brittle layer of ambiguity that only softens as its characters open up. “The more people get to know you, the more they don’t like you,” one of them warns Chris, but “We’re Still Together” poignantly illustrates why everyone owes it to themselves to give people that chance.
“We’re Still Together” premiered this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.