The conundrum facing many independent-minded would-be filmmakers is how much, if any, attention to pay to the marketplace. Ignorance to the commercial realities of eventual distribution (in whatever form) is dangerous, and yet pandering to patty-cake notions of superior "character-rooted narrative" has resulted in its own set of collective sins, I'd argue — a robust slate of risible low-fi product in which ethnically diverse families come of age in America, small town soldiers return home from Iraq, or various combinations of philandering hipsters grapple with heroin, dyslexia and coming out of the closet. Multi-hyphenate Todd Berger's The Scenesters intuitively understands this — what makes voracious but mainstream-leaning film audiences queasy or skeptical about "indie" film as a more broadly categorized movement — and has loads of fun twisting it in all sorts of pretzel shapes in service of a rangy, noir-tinged murder comedy.
A quirky and engaging film that honors many of the conventions of classic whodunit? cinema while also giving them both a modern spin and a deconstructive nudge to the ribs, The Scenesters centers on a smarmy, out-of-work film director named Wallace Cotton (Berger, above center) and his equally self-centered producer, Roger Graham (Jeff Grace), who land work as crime scene videographers, and set out to make some great art. They quickly stumble across crime scene cleaner Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller, resembling a cross between Casey Affleck and Dwight Yoakam), a schlubby, down-on-his-luck guy who's quietly honed a superb sense of deduction through his work.
As a couple of apathetic detectives (Kevin Brennan and Monika Jolly) investigate a series of killings in ultra-hip East Los Angeles, Charlie discovers clues that link together the killings, which convinces Wallace and Roger that Charlie is himself the perfect subject around which to center an investigative movie. As the body count mounts — and Charlie is encouraged to romantically reconnect with a beautiful reporter, Jewell Wright (Suzanne May), at the center of the story — Wallace and Roger angle to stay ahead of the killer, and craft a winning documentary, no matter the outside corporeal toll.
Reminiscent in some slight ways of Russell Brown's The Blue Tooth Virgin, another inside-Hollywood tale that wasn't afraid to showcase under-the-radar ambition in ways that didn't always flatter its characters, The Scenesters unfolds against the backdrop of a (n appropriate) hipster soundtrack that includes the Airborne Toxic Event, the Cribs, Wallpaper, Le Switch and more. Scream is obviously something of a touchstone inspiration here (and Chinatown, too, for the film within the film), but the shoegazing, mumblecore cinema of the Duplass brothers also rates mentioning, both because of this movie's DIY ethos and the fact that it's simultaneously self-aware about the dangers of arthouse pretension. Berger's film spins off all sorts of jokey asides (Charlie's crime scene training video, a music video from a side project rock band one of the cops fronts), as well as a trial session framing device that features Sherilyn Fenn as a prosecutor and John Landis as the judge, and sometimes these bits don't connect. Or, rather, they play OK as scenes, but muddy the editorial collection as a whole — a sense of how much what an audience is watching is formed after the fact, and by whom, after the conclusion of the murder spree mystery at its core.
Smartly, though, Berger seeds his film with all sorts of mini-conflicts and personality clashes, which makes for much fun and amusement. His dialogue has some salty bite ("Would it kill people to find bodies during magic hour — I feel like I'm on the face of the sun" Wallace bitches at one crime scene), and doesn't always dwell on its punchlines, in a hamfisted effort to drill them home, and let you know how "smart" it is. A few of the performances aren't quite up to the par with the material, and the movie could have benefited from a bit more rakish snap to its telling, particularly in the finale. But The Scenesters has in abundance what every independent film yearns for — intrigue and a cocksure rhythm that doesn't ever feel false. If its plotting doesn't in the end leave much room for a big surprise, that's no reason not to surrender to the pleasures it provides along the way. Sometimes a nice slice of archness can be a good thing. For a trailer and more information, click here. (Vactioneer/Midwinter Studios, unrated, 101 minutes)