Writer-director Matt Bissonnette’s Passenger Side had its world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival Friday evening, with a handful of boutique distributor reps in attendance amidst the three-quarters-full crowd at the Mann Regent in Westwood.
A low-fi, California-set road flick of indolent, occasional charm, Passenger Side centers on Los Angeleno Michael Brown (Adam Scott, above right), an exasperated copywriter/unsuccessful novelist whose birthday begins with a telephone call from his estranged, drug addicted older brother Tobey (Joel Bissonnette, above left, the director’s brother). Tobey is without car, and needs Michael’s help ferrying him around on a series of mysterious but apparently vital errands. To this end, Michael puts his nebulous birthday plans on hold to embark on a sketchy Southland odyssey that crosses paths with a randy transsexual, a drunken party girl, a desert-dwelling pie server, an immigrant with lopped-off fingers and all other manner of oddballs.
It may sound positively Lynchian, that mix, but Bissonnette (Looking for Leonard, Who Loves the Sun) is much more interested in the rhythms of honest, forward-leaning conversation, and constructs his movie as a snapshot of swallowed fraternal standoffishness, where obvious mutual regard has been worn down by the cutting winds of life, and each brother’s disapproval over some of the other’s choices. In press notes the filmmaker describes Passenger Side as being about “the complex bonds created when opposites are bound together by life, family and blood… and also about different ways that a life can be lived: from the supposed safety of the sidelines, or deep in the middle of the mess.” With that in mind, Passenger Side is in some ways a (much) more plugged-in companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s willfully meandering Gerry; here, though, it isn’t modernity or so much man’s relationship to nature itself under the microscope, but the accumulated baggage that comes with dreams gone off-track, and how that can warp decision-making and breed stasis.
The problem is that Michael remains too much of a cipher; with no backstory as arguably turbulent and self-destructive as Tobey’s addiction, we’re left to get bits and pieces filled in along the way. While Scott’s engaging performance mitigates this somewhat, there is the lingering feeling that he’s just somewhat of a grumpy jerk. A bit more (non-familial?) shading of his personality would have helped nail down the character more concretely.
There’s also a girl at the center of Passenger Side, but the manner in which she looms over the narrative — played for a big twist at the end — feels lacking, or perhaps just overly coy. Damningly, there’s also no sort of exacting chronological/topographical honesty or logic, which undercuts at least a bit the way the movie plays to a film-savvy crowd, either comprised of Los Angelenos or New Yorkers who know the City of Angels and surrounding areas at least a bit. Events unfold in Los Angeles, and see Michael and Tobey then drive to Glendale, to Joshua Tree, back to Los Angeles, to Long Beach, back to the San Fernando Valley, and then to Hollywood. Given the timeframe, this is something of a stretch. Also, at one point theoretically leaving the Valley, we see the pair instead driving west past Universal City, presumably because it provides a more scenic backdrop.
The film’s chief selling point is the rapport between Scott and Bissonnette, which is delightful — powered by the
sort of masculine-sardonic patter that disaffected brothers, either
real or in feeling/name, use to keep each other at arms’ length. Leaning on ex-Superchunk frontman and Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan as a musical consultant, Bissonnette also constructs a fantastically evocative soundtrack for the tape deck of Michael’s beat-up, mid-1970s BMW. It’s those details that give Passenger Side the weight of knock-about authenticity, even if one wishes its conversational patter were a bit more honed toward the end target at which it’s aiming.
For more information on the film, which screens again on Thursday, June 25 at 4:30 p.m. as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival in Westwood, click here.