One of the best things about film festivals is that they provide an opportunity for smaller, perhaps lesser-known movies to be shown to a considerable audience and to receive a certain amount of buzz from publicists, press, and fans. Sometimes, festival planning committees choose these independent films because they are quite experimental and thus bring new talent onto the film industry’s radar. Whether testing unconventional narrative formats, employing unusual filming techniques, or using unknowns or non-actors, typical festival fare is anything but what we’ve come to expect at the multiplex. This may mean we need to adjust our expectations, but it shouldn’t require us to lower our standards: while the films may not be blockbusters, or feature the tabloids’ newest sex symbols, or wrap everything up tidily at the end, they should still be well-made and entertaining. David Fenster’s “Pincus,” for all its attempts to be edgy, loses sight of its story, leaving us with a film that is not nearly engaging enough, nor is it a feat of good construction.
Pincus Finster (David Nordstrom) descends into a psychological tailspin when he moves in with his father, Paul (Paul Fenster, the director’s father), who suffers from Parkinson’s. Pincus is utterly defeated by the situation, forced to cope with his father’s mortality as well as his own, as he watches the once-celebrated building contractor crippled by a disease that neither man is unable to control or fix. To distract himself from the looming threat of death, Pincus takes up several hobbies: he manages the family business, begins doing yoga, and, most effectively of all, smokes a lot of weed.
Of course, these distractions don’t really help. With the assistance of a homeless, substance-addicted partner, Dietmar (Dietmar Franosch), Pincus runs his father’s contracting company into the ground. His venture into yoga and meditation seems, at first, to be motivated by a desire to explore alternative remedies for Parkinson’s, but, really, he just has the hots for the instructor, Anna (Christi Idavoy). Pincus is visibly grateful when she sets Paul up with an acupuncturist and then a didgeridoo healer, but his knowing looks and awkward slips of the tongue betray another motivation for continuing to see her.
“Pincus” was born from a discarded documentary Fenster made about his father as Parkinson’s ravaged his body in real life as well. Much of the narrative film is culled from that piece, with original footage of conversations re-edited to include Nordstrom talking to Paul instead of David. This technique contributes a degree of realism, and is nothing if not brave: Fenster should be commended for having the strength to put his very personal experience of pain on screen. Still, using scenes from the documentary hinders the stylization of the rest of the movie, which reads like a reality show. Hand-held cameras and natural lighting combine for a very flat look, even in the lush gardens of Miami, as Fenster works to incorporate his documentary footage into the greater whole.
Paul Fenster is a real presence in the film, so it’s no surprise that the pieces of documentary footage are often the most powerful and affecting scenes. However, next to these distinct moments of reality, the staged moments appear to be, well, really staged, full of forced performances and events that reek of showmanship rather than authenticity. Moreover, many scenes don’t really seem to fit within the story of Pincus and Paul: interspersed shots of swimming fish and rain falling on palm fronds are beautiful, and speak to the origins of man on Earth, but seem to be overwrought rather than natural inclusions. The disconnect here only serves to further dismantle the film’s roots in actual experiences.
Even with the documentary footage, the film never seems to attempt to answer the questions it poses. (Which, by the way, are presented with remarkable transparency and less than a hint of subtlety, in several conversations Pincus has with Paul.) While the queries are big – mortality, spirituality, heredity, the importance of familial and romantic relationships, honoring a life lived – they don’t require big responses, nor would the delivery of complete answers be a realistic goal in the 90-minute run time. But the film offers little in the way of a through line commentary or self-awareness. In fact, it often seems as though Fenster backed away from the material just before the emotional agony set in: many scenes cut in the middle of a character’s line, as though the deepest core of the story was physically avoided in editing. While it’s nigh impossible to take someone to task for avoiding a painful experience, Fenster’s film suffers as a result of this forestalling.
“Pincus” isn’t a bad idea; actually, at its root, it’s a pretty great idea. It’s just not executed in a way that makes it appealing or even particularly watchable. Experimentation in filmmaking is a wonderful thing, and it has given us sound, color, and – yes, I have to say it – 3D. But trying too hard to make a unique movie can result in a piece that feels both incomplete and incomprehensible, that isn’t a movie at all, but rather, a series of test runs. This is perhaps clearest in the film’s final scene, sporting an ending that is less a cap on the story and feels more like it was written so that everyone could just go home. [C-]