There are a lot of coming-of-age movies. Tons. And this means that there is always a chance any new film added to this particular genre is just going to be a mediocre rehash of the same old themes. Often filmmakers try getting around that by filling their story with gimmicks and wacky grabs from other genres, as a way to put a new “spin” on the old coming-of-age concept. This doesn’t tend to end well.
What does writer-director Max Winkler do to keep his film “Ceremony” from falling into genre redundancy? Simply put, he makes a good coming-of-age movie. There are some frills, to be sure, and plenty of quirk, but at the core of this film there really is just a great script about a young protagonist trying to follow a dream of himself. He references J.D. Salinger, but it doesn’t come off as trite; the hero throws himself after an older woman, but it doesn’t feel tired. The strength of this film is in the details; Winkler has not written a film that uses ridiculous hijinks and ribald humor to keep the audience entertained at the expense of the verity of the characters and story. Instead, “Ceremony” is filled with the intimate moments and genuine instances of humor that breathe new humanity into a classic form.
The protagonist is Sam, an early twenty-something living in New York City, attempting to build a career as a writer of children’s books. The film opens at a reading of his newest picture book, with only his friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) in attendance. The poor guy is ridiculous, entirely unaware of his own absurdity and almost completely convinced of his own savoir-faire. He has a very particular manner of speaking, a cutesy attempt at sounding ironically debonair. It works for him in a way, and he’s certainly charming enough to talk his “best friend” Marshall into a weekend in Long Island and a bit of party crashing. But is he charming enough to seduce someone older and less emotionally unstable? That turns out to be the driving narrative question of the film.
As Sam has planned, and Marshall gradually finds out, they’ve left the city so that Sam can show up at the wedding of Zoe (Uma Thurman) and Whit (Lee Pace) in a last ditch effort to win back the love of his life and convince her to call off the wedding. In a way he has a case; Whit is a self-absorbed documentary filmmaker who is planning to screen his most recent film as part of the wedding celebration, the type of guy to brag about having just worked with a charity to give “open toed adjustable sandals to poor African children.” For a while, you almost begin to believe in Sam’s rosy (if not entirely thought out) dream for the future and start pulling for the older and wiser Zoe to give in and run off with her younger suitor.
Yet while sometimes you really are rooting for Sam to get what he wants, for the most part it’s made pretty clear that he doesn’t stand a chance. It’s the folly of youth, as the poor kid lets himself create all of this drama around an exaggerated romantic fantasy that really has no practical shot. And fortunately, Winkler makes absolutely sure that the film is not just a series of awkward moments, in which his unfortunate protagonist says ridiculous things and makes the audience cringe.
The movie, its script and its cast shine in the scattered scenes of genuine intimacy built amongst the characters. There’s a real understated softness that comes through in moments of rest, showing a tenderness in the relationship between Sam and Marshall that really defines the fragility of their youth. They sit on the bed in their makeshift guest room, thrown about by their romantic un-adventures with older women, and let us in on a friendship much more complex and real than you’d find in a standard buddy movie.
The same warmth and intimacy pervades a wonderful scene on the beach, in which Whit lays it all out for Sam, but so subtly and kindly that by the end we understand how decent a guy he is deep down. Sitting in a ridiculous yellow buggy on the sand, we can see how little a threat Sam really does pose, even though at the moment it goes right over his head. It’s the same in his honest moments with Zoe, standing in a closet or walking through a marsh; we see right into these characters, in no small part due to the excellent performances but also very much thanks to a uniquely balanced screenplay.
A word about the actors. What everyone in this film seems to understand is that this cannot be your average quirky independent film with outrageous characters that make you laugh at the dialogue instead of helping you think about the story. The components are there for a generically quirky piece of independent coming-of-age schlock, and every once in a while you expect “Ceremony” to fall into that waiting ditch of kitschy irony. Thankfully, that never happens. It is delightful what a film can be if the cast and crew stick to the nuances of character, the reality of their themes and the truth of their story.
For Sam to go from the charismatic and juvenile kid at the opening of the film, presenting his story of a mermaid love triangle to an empty room somewhere in New York City, to the “saddest boy in the world” looking out over the ocean somewhere on Long Island, he needs to gradually and genuinely experience what life has in store. The strength of this film lies in the details; a three-legged race for colored paper, a stumbling conversation with a maid, a heartbreaking conversation in a beautifully shot marsh, and any number of other moments that stand out for their genuine and heartfelt veracity.
“Ceremony” just screened at the Miami International Film Festival and will also be at SXSW next week. For those non-festivalgoers, the film is currently available on video-on-demand and will officially open in theaters April 8.