Five Time Champion (2011)
Seen at: Rerun Gastropub Theater
Who: Berndt Mader (d), Ryan Akin, Betty Buckley, Noell Coet, Jon Gries, Robert Longstreet, Don Pirl, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson
Baggage: First viewing; digital projection was awkwardly off (non-anamorphic and low-res), which made me want to go up and fix it.
Bias: A film about foibles that came at a delicate time.
There are lots of characters to meet in Five Time Champion, and writer-director Berndt Mader goes about the business of introductions quickly and quietly. His camera roams through the attractive Texas more-country-than-city exurbia, stopping to visit, lingering to clarify, and then pushing off for the next stop along the way. Let’s do the same here, minus camera.
Julius (Ryan Akin), a shy high school boy with a big mind, lies in a grassy field in the opening shot, kissing his teen girlfriend, Shiley (Noell Coet), as much with clinical curiosity as with passion. His mother, Danielle (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), is a taxidermist – really? or is this the subtext speaking? – who dates the rich, nervous, and fussy high school assistant principal, Melvin (Jon Gries), filling the space left behind when Julius’s father left town, reputedly for another man.
Grandpa Alwyn (Don Pirl) is a gruff man of few words, first seen caring for a frail, elderly woman. When Julius pegs a stone through the kitchen window of the house, we realize that something here isn’t right, though a fair stretch of time passes before Julius tells us that the woman Alwyn is visiting is not his wife. This is how Mader, for whom this is a first feature, handles revelations in the movie: we see them and have time to taste and ponder before the narrative surfaces and it’s time to move on.
Five Time Champion is generally packaged as a coming-of-age movie, and that’s partly what it is. It’s really a film about the chaotic banality of dishonesty, especially sexual promiscuity, although none of the characters is just sleeping around: each is playing the field in order to till the field, looking for partners and committed relationships, or honoring the ones that have come before.
The story of Julius and Shiley (and the beauteous, thong-wearing Teena, who rocks their boat) is marginally the main line of the plot. But shadowing the teens and their labors at love is the story of Danielle, content if not inspired by life with the goggly Melvin, whose family made its money from paper towels. Is there more to life than this? Yes, as it happens. And while the exact nature of Alwyn’s visits to Betty, who is frail and ill, are not discussed – everyone here is too old to be easily sexual – he’s nevertheless doing it behind the back of his affectionate wife Fran (Betty Buckley), and in the service of old, banked flames. The three generations work through their hierarchy of unfaithfulness more or less in tandem, trying their best to do the right thing, if only they could figure out what the right thing is.
Julius draws the most screen time, and the most sympathy. He’s written this way, but he’s also portrayed beautifully by Mr. Akin, who gives plenty but not overmuch, and helps us watch the action from his low-man totem-pole vantage. There is a sweetness to his sexual uncertainty that will be familiar to most of us who were once that age: he and Ms. Coet, who is flirty and uncertain in perfect balance, give the film the heart that the rest of the cast goes about breaking.
Ultimately, Five Time Champion is a little frail for all that’s freighted on it, but it stays cheerful, sharp, and interesting throughout, and the cast is marvelous. There is an easy organic quality to the early part of the film that becomes strained as more and more plot emerges, and by the time Julius makes a third-act visit to his father, Harold (deftly handled by indie-film hero Robert Longstreet), there’s a sense that these threads are weaving together a little too intently, insistently seeking the bliss of a tidy wrap and a rosy resolve at 92 minutes.
One of the fine and quiet strengths of the film is its even-handed lack of compassion for the losers in each of the bouts. By the time the credits run, the various couples have settled down, for better or worse. There’s no solace for those who aren’t chosen: they are out of the picture, discarded without a backward look. The ending may seem a bit blunted and neat, but it harbors an exquisite firm cruelty for the ones who do not make the grade. This is why we risk everything, Mader tells us: because if you don’t come out a winner, you don’t come out at all.