“The distress is authentic,” Harper (Bridey Elliott) says, describing a barrel on a beach, admiring its organically worn qualities in contrast to a similar barrel that she and BFF Allie (Clare McNulty) impulse-bought on a Brooklyn street corner mere hours before. Of course, that barrel now sits at the bottom of their stairs, devoid of umbrellas or whatever it is they feel like filling it with, while this one rests freely on the sand, a somehow superior bit of nothing.
Is it a spoiler to say that these two broke girls do in fact make it to Fort Tilden when the entire plot of “Fort Tilden,” insomuch as there is one, concerns their misguided day-long adventure to locate said beach? Perhaps it’s a tad trite to say that the journey matters more than the destination, but in the case of Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ comedy, it really does.
For Harper and Allie, taking the day off is the least of their hurdles. Harper is a vaguely self-described “artist” who continually hits her jet-setting dad up for money, while Allie has been waffling on completing her Peace Corps paperwork after her every mention of Liberia earns a grimace from anyone who asks. Neither is about to pass up the invitation of two cute guys from the night before out to Fort Tilden, but they do have their limits: no eating (they want to look good in their bathing suits), no using sunblock (they’d like to tan up a bit), no needless expenditures. Then again, who knows when they might come across the cutest wooden barrel or want iced coffee or need a cab or…
This is the part where we swear that the protagonists aren’t entirely insufferable (although your own mileage may vary). At a point when the latest tale of twenty-something woe might understandably induce the same defeated sighs as the early crackle of yet another found-footage flick, co-writer/directors Bliss and Rogers (“Tar”) thread the navel-gazing needle with remarkable wit, as if channeling Sofia Coppola’s “After Hours.” Dreamy midday bike-riding montages are harshed by the horn-honking realities of traffic-crossing and dealing with pedestrians, while the girls’ breathless exchanges walk a fine line between credibly ironic pith and astute parody (their idea of shopping: “Is this Southwestern Hipster or Meth Head?” “Both, but it’s good!”).
Of course, none of this can seem all that exaggerated while the “normcore” movement rears its casually conformist head off-screen. What really sells both the fashionable remove and generational paralysis is the pairing of Elliott and McNulty, as they effortlessly establish a passive-aggressive relationship from the get-go that thrives in a constant state of reliably unreliable codependence. Together, Harper and Allie have so strongly conditioned themselves to indifference and entitlement that they are far more content with witnessing a crime and providing conflicted commentary than actually budging an inch and possibly preventing it.
The manic mood inevitably mellows as the day winds down, with these two young women revealing an unironic emotional foundation to their friendship even as it threatens to disintegrate under yet another wave of short-sighted decision-making. “Fort Tilden” is still a bit amusing in the home stretch — separate dilemmas involving kittens and ecstasy make for some sadly funny situations — but it also rings with some measure of truth, and after 95 minutes spent around Harper and Allie, you’ll understand why calling the experience “tediously adorable” is something they might consider a compliment.
After all, the distress is authentic. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.