My Effortless Brilliance, which will be shown this weekend at the Seattle International Film Festival, is the second feature film by local director Lynn Shelton. We Go Way Back won acclaim in 2006 from critics and festival audiences nationwide for its portrayal of a depressed young actress who has a spiritual encounter with her adolescent self. Shelton shifts focus from women to men in her new film, a low-key comedy that closely scrutinizes the world of male friendship.
Brilliance's protagonist is Eric (Sean Nelson), a needy, self-absorbed thirtysomething literary novelist who had great success years earlier with his first book but is now facing writer's block. In the first few moments of the film, he is abruptly dumped by old buddy Dylan (Basil Harris), who tells him "You've always been a total asshole, and a really terrible friend."
What prompted this pronouncement is a mystery that drives the rest of the film, which takes place two years later. Eric, on a speaking tour in Eastern Washington, tracks down Dylan, who now lives in a cabin in the woods, frequently visited by his new friend Jim (Calvin Reeder), who is at much at home in the wild as Eric is out of place. The three spend the weekend together undertaking the usual male bonding rituals: telling tales, chopping wood, drinking plum brandy, and hunting cougar.
The strength of the film is that the mystery of Eric and Dylan's break-up is never explicitly resolved. Rather than dissecting the history of their friendship, as two women might do, Eric and Dylan instead express their feelings in subtle and indirect ways. Eric wants everything to "be good again," but doesn't have enough self-knowledge to know why it went bad in the first place. All he can offer Dylan is witty banter, self-deprecation, and memories of better times. The film's title, a reference to one of Eric's books, is of course a joke, as nothing about him is effortless or brilliant. Dylan tries to maintain his repressed anger, but can't help responding to Eric's charming, boyish overtures, which help Dylan recognize the limitations of the less complicated Jim, whom Eric sees as a rival.
The tension between Eric and Jim, representing culture versus nature, gives the film a very Northwest feel. Eric is painfully urban, the ultimate aesthete, terrified by anything remotely untamed. The moment he arrives at the cabin in his Prius, he searches for the best cell phone reception spot. Jim seems born of the woods, which he roams on horseback, carrying a gun. Jim chops wood; Eric makes coffee. Never did two men wear jeans so differently. Yet both are completely recognizable (if comically exaggerated) Washingtonians, which should make the film especially enjoyable for SIFF audiences.
Brilliance has a documentary feel, aided by naturalistic acting, improvised (and quite often hilarious) dialogue, and dynamic camerawork. Great attention is paid to details of the men's behavior, as every sly comment, insecure glance, drunken boast, and awkward pause takes on great significance when that's all we have to access their interior states.
Toward the end of the film, when Eric and Dylan actually start to talk about their differences, Jim sidetracks them by suggesting a cougar hunt. This power play backfires, leading to a surprising climax and a modest yet satisfying conclusion that suggests there may still be a future for this troubled friendship. Shelton is an adept observer of the contemporary Northwest sensibility.Click here for an interview with filmmaker Lynn Shelton.
My Effortless Brilliance will be screened at the Egyptian Theater on Saturday, May 24th, at 9:30 p.m. and Monday, May 26th, at 4 p.m.