"Turkey Bowl" is an admirably concise directorial debut from Kyle Smith in which a group of old college friends gather in a field for their annual touch-football game. (Winner gets the turkey.) Unfolding in real time, this disarmingly naturalistic comedy sticks to a single setting and rhythm for its brief 64 minutes. A showcase for Smith's technical skills and his ability to capture the nuances of tight-knit camaraderie, "Turkey Bowl" is a pleasant exercise from a director who has a clear capacity to tell bigger and more intricate stories.
The crowd gets together in the summer, an irony immediately pointed out by a newcomer. "You guys know it's August, right?" he asks. "Do you like turkey?" responds a team member. He nods. "Then what's the problem?" After fleeting small talk, the game begins, but the chatter continues.
As a group ritual, the turkey bowl operates like sweaty, breathless group therapy. From the opening shot through the last, Smith strings together each minute with overlapping conversations between young adults in slightly different places than they were the last time they met. Using familiar archetypes, Smith allows unseen details to exist in the viewer's imagination. As they dash across the field, talking about the jobs and habits that form their current lifestyles, we hear passing inferences to relationships that have evolved through many stages.
Parsing the characters' long-term connections makes "Turkey Bowl" sound like an elaborate sitcom. Jon (Jon Schmidt) and Kerry (Kerry Bishé, "Red State") are long-term frenemies who probably harbor an unspoken sexual attraction. Zoe (Zoe Perry) is dating Zeke (Zeke Hawkins), but used to have a thing for Morgan (Morgan Beck), who has grown bitter. Everyone agrees that the affable Tom (Tom DiMenna) has gotten a little pudgy, but he doesn't seem to mind. Speed-loving Bob has devolved into an obnoxious cokehead. You could throw these people into a house and pitch it as a reality show, but Smith doesn't force the drama; they talk, and they talk, and then he cuts to black. It's a peek at a fleeting moment between the definitive events of their lives.
The secret ingredient of "Turkey Bowl" is the two outsiders who attend the game for the first time. Affable Troy (Troy Buchanan) seems less perturbed than anyone else about being the only black man in a vanilla crowd, while the moody Latino Sergio (Sergio Villarreal) brings a lust for competition that threatens to take the breezy game into a more serious level of engagement. Together, their presence illustrates how new faces can alter the ebb and flow of a social network long after the establishment of its original dynamic. Watching previously determined bonds shift under these conditions proves much more energizing than, say, trying to keep track of them on Facebook.
Without major dramatic flow, the full potential of these remarkably believable personalities is never realized. However, despite the film's lighthearted tone, these characters exist as few fictional creations do. "Turkey Bowl" is more legitimate than most character-driven American movies made for no money and filled with sloppy improvisation. As a poor man's Robert Altman -- or maybe an Altman-in-training -- Smith turns reality into his main conceit.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too short and plotless to interest distributors, "Turkey Bowl" will probably enjoy a healthy festival run and give Smith enough momentum to make his next feature.
criticWIRE grade: B+