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by Michael Koresky
March 19, 2009 1:42 AM
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This American Life Lesson: Roland Tec’s “We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States”

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

If one were to wander into Roland Tec’s “We Pedal Uphill: Stories from the States” completely cold, without the aid of advance reviews or, say, an explanatory press kit, one might find oneself struggling to make valid connections between the thirteen short films that comprise its running time. For it’s hard to imagine that for the uninitiated, Tec’s film, upon first glance, would seem like anything other than a random sampling of what we might be forced to call “post-9/11 behavior.” As enacted by the many characters in Tec’s anthology, which from its very title announces itself as a strictly American project, this behavior might be noble, very bad, or callously indifferent, and often relates to Big Social Issues. Variously, we have voting fraud, army recruitment propaganda, right-wing demonization of gays, bottom-line spending on prisons, the twisting and repackaging of liberal U.S. history, the environment, governmental mistreatment of Muslim American citizens, racial discord, class division, etc. How can all this comfortably be dealt with in one film? It can’t, so only vague outlines will do.

“We Pedal Uphill” best functions then as something like a filmed version of a flimsy short-story anthology: disposable but not without its occasional cogent passages. Thankfully, the film’s all-over-the-map feeling (in performance, music, narrative, and literally in its jumping from state to state) allows it to constantly reinvent itself from one bit to the next, and it maintains interest due to its more anecdotal nature. Many of the segments amount to little more than an eye-rolling tsk-tsk (a group of gross corporate jag-offs from the Neil Labute mold discuss the merits of serving prisoners cattle offal, and then indulge in greasy BBQ; while searching for the perfect photo-op, a presidential handler dumps a water bottle in the woods . . . wait for it . . . on Earth Day!), while the few meatier ones (a librarian’s mysterious absence’s relation to homeland security intimidation; a Ohio secretary’s investigation into a discovered discrepancy in an affidavit of the number of local voting machines) capsize from overburdened dramatics and telegraphed overacting.

Certain segments, due to Tec’s occasionally more restrained approach, save the film from seeming more like a Huffington Post dartboard. In the opening, “Paranoia,” a man washes, brushes, and leaves his house in the early morning darkness, en route to his job. The payoff feels at once revelatory and cheap, but Tec’s smart decision to keep the segment in a tense, wordless literal radio silence until then brings its slightly twisted “morning in America” project into sharp focus—too bad that directly after Tec accompanies the opening credits with an ironic but nevertheless earnestly, ear-piercingly caterwauled theme song (sample lyric: “Like the stars and stripes I’m forever yours”).

Tec is on surest footing in a Florida segment in which two fortysomething circuit-boy holdovers, hoping for a hotel-room snog, find themselves at an irreconcilable divide when it turns out that they both work for “the Mouse”: only one’s a lowest-level Epcot employee and the other is corporate to a fault. The conversation flows naturally-awkwardly, and the white collar’s “Do u party?” intimidation sinks to levels of horny condescension that redefine the terms top and bottom. That this is Tec’s most grounded narrative is perhaps unsurprising due to his last feature-film success, “All the Rage,” which took apart gay male narcissism with sassy aplomb.

The inherent problem with a cross-sectionial, multicharacter drama such as this, of course, is that in its very form it purports something like an unbiased survey approach, but only offers repetitive, overwritten likeminded mini narratives: the world according to Tec disguised as behavioral observation (as a result, the more trained theatrical actors come across much better than those who attempt naturalism). As films like “Crash,” “Babel,” and “Crossing Over” have proven in recent years, there are few genres more manipulative—though in his defense, thankfully Tec’s lives don’t intersect. Without any sort of aesthetic unification (unless poorly framed video is the glue holding this together), “We Pedal Uphill” mostly feels aloof, and perhaps works best as a showcase for a host of regional actors, most of whom seem authentic to their given states.

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