Anyone can make a movie and anyone will. The digital revolution has democratized cinema and, with it, came thousands of micro-indies. Sex was had, stars were born, dialogue was somewhat discernible. It’d be fraudulent to claim that all of these films focused on the post-college malaise of twenty-somethings, but many of the successful ones do. And while that’s fine — it’s certainly a topic that resonates with many — “Sabbatical” is a long breath of fresh air in that crowded room of independent film.
A highly sophisticated, lean picture, the sophomore effort from Brandon Colvin centers on middle-aged scholar Ben (Robert Longstreet) as he returns to his childhood home to care for his ailing mother. What should be a rather quiet holiday — near perfect conditions for him to write a new book, he hopes — devolves into something more unsettling. Ben finds himself playing backyard drinking games with a highschool friend, butting heads with mannerless younger sibling Dylan (Kentucker Audley), and attempting to reconnect with old beau Sarah (Rhoda Griffis). It’s as if Ben has stepped into another dimension: despite being decades older and by all accounts a mature individual, he finds himself backsliding to the awkward teenager stage of his life with everyone else falling back into their supporting roles. Notably, this includes a painfully awkward moment with Sarah that is akin to a boy’s first sexual encounter. These are tropes everyone is familiar with — they’re ingrained within us one way or another, be it through life experience or pop culture’s determined insistence — but here it’s become substantial again thanks to the film’s uncompromising aesthetic and tone.
“Sabbatical” is a film that is admittedly light on plot, but don’t read that as a detriment — Colvin is less interested in melodrama here than he is in mood, texture, and the things that make people tick. Everything about the film is economical (right down to the 70-minute runtime) and that no-fat, minimalist nature is one of its greatest strengths. The honed-in, supremely focused attitude that it emits is reminiscent of master craftsmen such as Ingmar Bergman or Robert Bresson. Of course, the 4:3 aspect ratio also lends itself to be compared to the old guard, but Colvin’s use of that frame — or better put: an imposing and incredibly effective mutation of it — sits at a fixed perspective, constantly cutting off heads and utilizing off-screen space. Form parallels content, and the disorienting, rigid frame that dismembers bodies or gives attention to everyday objects only augments the disconnection of lead character Ben.
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Longstreet has often played crackerjack, wild supporting roles in very different projects — from nutso “Septien” to psychodrama “Thou Wast Mild And Lovely” — but it’s a joy to see him tackle the lead in a grounded drama. An understated film like this requires a subtle performance, and Longstreet carries “Sabbatical” effortlessly, playing a tormented figure who refuses to release his demons out into the world. The surrounding players ultimately play second fiddle to him, but another highlight is the usually funny Audley giving a restrained performance, something akin to the earlier roles he played in his directorial efforts (or even in Joe Swanberg’s reserved and underrated “Marriage Material.”)
Eventually things come to a head and threaten to crack the stasis that paralyzes the characters. The ailing mother, once the catalyst for the events that preceded, now seems to be the force that will raise Ben out of his crippled state. It’s by no means a happy ending, but it’s a subtle, mature sign of optimism that keeps in line with the mood of the film. Whereas the slow-pace and rigorous aesthetic may not be for everyone, it’s music to my ears, and “Sabbatical” stands tall as an outlier of the micro-budget scene. [A-]
Sabbatical is now available to purchase via Vimeo on Demand here.