Young filmmakers often reference their heroes outright. This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to creatively wayward directors; look at the early films of genuine auteur Paul Thomas Anderson to see wholesale theft from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman (to name a few). But when the references are a distraction to the point of actively taking away from the enjoyment of the movie, that’s when things become a problem. And it’s a problem that plagues the otherwise wonderful “Sin Bin,” a charming little comedy about a high school kid (Michael Seater) who rents his beat-up van out to his fellow students for sexual liaisons, which owes such a stylistic debt to the films of Wes Anderson that it makes you think somewhat less of the movie.
From the beginning, the movie seems to be tipping its hat to Anderson. Examples abound – the super-thick Futura bold font utilized for the title cards; the way the camera whips around as it follows Brian (Seater) through the halls of his prep school; the score that seems directly lifted from Mark Mothersbaugh‘s work on “Rushmore;” the fact that every high schooler dresses like Andre 3000, complete with tailored blazers and bowties the color of expensive pills; the slow-motion-for-no-good-reason pans. On their own, these flourishes are engaging and cute, much like the rest of the movie. The problem is that the references, both subtle and overt, seem to pile up like some catastrophic highway collision, so that by the time that the end titles start (after an unnecessarily drawn out slow-motion shot again reminiscent of Anderson), you shut down completely. (Somewhere, some festival nerd is already concocting a drinking game based around this.) Which is too bad. It would be less frustrating if “Sin Bin” didn’t come so close to greatness. But it really, really does. It’s got a smart script and a strong cast full of outrageously talented kids and captures some very real feelings of sexual frustration and isolation associated with the painfully awkward process of growing up. It would just be much more fun if the specter of Anderson wasn’t haunting every goddamn frame.
From the frantic beginning, which shows Brian as he maneuvers reservations with various friends for use of the Sin Bin (named, it’s later revealed, for the penalty box in hockey), the movie has a propulsive energy that is absolutely infectious. Brian, his hair whipped into a crazy swirl, his off-kilter smile betraying some inner melancholy, organizes these sexual encounters and facilitates them, but is still a virgin himself. He’s in love with a class hottie (Emily Meade), but socially unequipped and terrified. So Brian enlists the help of Tony (Bo Burnham, stealing every scene), a posh dude who knows how to deal with the girls and drives a vintage Jaguar that Ferris Bueller would handily endorse (when Brian asks him why he drives shift, Tony shoots back, “The same reason why I don’t wear shorts”) Of course, the nature of their relationship changes when it’s revealed that one of the girls Tony is bedding also happens to be the literal girl of Brian’s dreams.
While it would be easy to classify “Sin Bin” as yet another twee-as-fuck coming-of-age confection, that would be doing it a disservice. There’s a timelessness and simplicity to the movie that recalls the works of John Hughes, there isn’t a cell phone or computer in sight (the suburban Chicago setting certainly lends something to this, too) and a frankness to its depiction of sex that is refreshing and totally contemporary. It’s got a hooky central conceit that would be easy to be fully encased in some kind of “Porky’s“-on-wheels sex romp; hermetically sealed in dick jokes and masturbation gags. The fact that it isn’t is a testament to its maturity and sophistication; the fact that it manages to cover so much thematic and emotional ground within that framework is pretty astounding.
There are also a number of subplots that add some layers, and don’t detract at all from the main thrust of the movie, most notably the return of Brian’s absentee brother Benny (Brian Petsos) and the relationship their family has to the cop next door (Tim Blake Nelson), who was friends with the kids’ dead father and keeps an eye on the family. There’s a great sequence where Suzie (Meade) gets drunk in the van after being slighted by Tony and the three of them carry her inside the house. The way that the three of them interact and the way that Brian looks after Suzie suggests so much history between the characters and says so much more than pages of dialogue could ever achieve. Director Billy Federighi has a strong sense of narrative economy, letting scenes play out over long takes instead of quickly cutting around, which moves things along and also very smartly lets the actors take center stage.
It’s the actors that really make “Sin Bin” such a blast to watch. Even though they are all very young and many of them unknown, their relative inexperience never comes through and they (largely) shine as bright as any movie star. Their chemistry is palpable and their comic timing snappy, and even though they’re existing in a highly stylized world, wearing clothes they probably wouldn’t put on in real life and speaking in screwball comedy-speak, a natural realism comes through. It’s just that the naturalism seems to be a fight, given the cluttered amount of references and stylistic embroidery they’re surrounded by. Had the filmmakers shaved away some of the embellished excess, they might have had a minor classic on their hands, worthy of the Anderson and Hughes canon. Instead, they have a very good movie whose reverence ends up bringing it down. [B]