The Duplass enerothers have become so synonymous with a certain strain of warmed over indie dramedy that it’s easy to overlook just how twisted they can be, and often are. Directorial efforts like “Baghead” and “Cyrus” have been sliced through with genuinely disturbing behavior, and many of the movies they’ve produced or presented (e.g. “Tangerine” or “The Overnight”) have pushed boundaries of one kind or another, albeit it with such a gentle touch that these transgressions seem as natural as breathing. It’s a helpful way of reframing the modesty of their work and the speed at which they churn it out — it’s not that the Duplai prioritize quantity over quality, but rather that their kooky ideas (and those of the filmmakers they’re eager to support) are too dangerously delicate to support anything bigger than a micro-budget project that’s shot in nine days and destined for VOD.
“Rainbow Time” is most definitely not a Duplass brothers movie — this story of brotherly love has been hatched from the singularly demented mind of writer-director Linas Phillips (“Manson Family Vacation”) — but it was made with the help and support of their production company, and it illustrates just how depraved they can get. It’s an unassuming little film that sports all of the typical indie tropes, but Phillips explores them with such a fetish for the uncomfortable that he eventually reaches a sick kind of radical honesty. But like, in a funny way. Imagine if the Duplass brothers had produced “Freddy Got Fingered” and you’ll be on the right track.
Phillips stars as Shonzi, a developmentally delayed 40-year-old man who lives with his dad (“Saw” killer Tobin Bell, droll and delightful) and spends his days making all sorts of silly home videos for a project he calls “Rainbow Time.” He’s obsessed with Fonzie, and he has the mindset and libido of a teenager whose hormones are just starting to simmer. We’re told that Shonzi doesn’t have Down syndrome, that his umbilical cord wrapped around and his neck and deprived him of oxygen in the womb — Phillips tries to have it both ways by rocking a bad haircut, packing his voice full of spit, and emphasizing the flat features of his face, but the non-diagnosis feels like an excuse not to cast a handicapped actor in the role.
That being said, it does pave the way for a crucial plot point: When Shonzi was a kid, his big brother backed over his head in their father’s car (because Shonzi was humping the gravel behind the rear tires). Todd (Timm Sharp) has always been a little twisted about that, but he’s a good guy — he loves his brother, in spite of all the guilt that he feels about him. They have a very… special relationship, and Todd’s emotionally centered but newly divorced girlfriend Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey) is about to learn all about it.
Things get weird pretty quick. For starters, Shonzi surreptitiously shoots video of Lindsay giving Todd a blow job. But the plot thickens: It turns out that Todd encourages Shonzi to do these kinds of things, that he gets a thrill from being watched and likes to pleasure himself to the footage. On one hand, he’s understandably horrified at the prospect of Lindsay finding out about this. On the other hand, it’s the only means by which he can meaningfully connect to his brother.
It sounds like premise for a genuinely punishing time at the movies, but “Rainbow Time” isn’t the joyless, Todd Solondz-esque slice of domestic miserablism that it appears to be; it’s not the kind of grimy experience that only washes off in the shower. On the contrary, Phillips finds a discomforting degree of sweetness and warmth in this fucked up family nightmare — his film gets a bit more harrowing as it goes along, but that’s only because he’s digging through the darkness in order to tunnel out on the other side. In doing so, “Rainbow Time” shines a light on the shame that everyone feels, and makes a convincing case that a certain degree of shamelessness is required to see it clearly.
And, much like Kris Avedisian’s semi-similar “Donald Cried,” this strangely moving experience only gets funnier as it grows more disturbing. In its best and most emblematic scene, Todd confesses that he’s lost his ability to get an erection, prompting Shonzi to excitedly reply: “I’m going to come over and get to the bottom of this!” The laughs are as frequent as they are perverse, and the performances that pluck them from such volatile material prevent this glorified sketch of a feature from pulling apart as it drifts from crazy scenario to another. Phillips, in a loaded role, clearly knows his character inside and out, maintaining a tonal consistency even when the nature of his handicap seems to change based on the requirements of a given scene, like a computer-generated creature that changes size from one scene to the next.
But it’s Lynskey who emerges as the MVP, especially during the extended bits in which Lindsay tries to help Shonzi become a better man by interviewing random women on the street. She keeps the film grounded at all times, tethering it to a resolutely human place whenever you can feel Phillips growing tempted to fall down the rabbit hole and let things get ridiculous for their own sake. Lynskey’s performance insists that every scene — no matter how warped or incestuous — ultimately returns to the notion that relationships are a balancing act between change and acceptance. “What’s his challenge, again?” Lindsay asks Todd before she’s first introduced to Shonzi. Todd tries to wiggle out of giving a response, but the truth is that Shonzi’s challenge is a familiar one. He’s trying to figure out how to be himself in a world filled with other people trying to do the same. Phillips, and the Duplass brothers by extension, are here to recognize how that can be harder for any of us than it sounds.
“Rainbow Time” is now available on VOD. It opens in theaters on November 4.
Check out an exclusive clip from the movie below: