Three out of five stars
Running time: 82 mins
Todd Solondz’s two previous films were Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, which were brilliantly observed, skewering portraits of, respectively, the pains of adolescence, and life and relationships in middle class American suburbia.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that when the basic set-up for Storytelling was announced (‘Happiness in high school’), there was a lot of fevered anticipation. Sadly, however, though still an interesting film, it doesn’t live up to expectations.
The film is basically two unrelated stories in one. (Supposedly a third, linking section featuring James Van Der Beek and Heather Matarazzo was filmed, then dropped, resulting in the relatively short running time and the film’s uneven feel – however, no adequate explanation of this has been forthcoming as yet).
The first section, ‘Fiction’, is only about twenty minutes long and centres on Vi (Selma Blair), her relationship with both her cerebral palsy-afflicted boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) and, later, a fling with her fiercely intelligent, black creative writing tutor (Robert Wisdom), which she then uses for the basis of a short story.
The second, longer section, ‘Non-fiction’, centres on Paul Giamatta’s geeky documentary film-maker, who thinks he’s found the perfect subject for his film on American teenage life in dopey slacker Scooby Livingstone (Mark Webber), to the initial resistance of his family (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty).
The resulting film, ‘American Scooby’, includes sly references to both American Beauty (there’s a shot of a plastic bag floating in the wind) and the acclaimed documentary American Movie (whose Mike Schank also has a bit part as Giamatta’s cameraman).
The acting, throughout, is excellent, with Selma Blair giving a mature performance in the first part that suggests better roles await her than those she’s had so far.
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There’s also a lot of extremely black humour in the film, particularly in the relationship between the Livingstone’s precocious younger son and their Salvadorean maid (Lupe Olvideros – from Chuck & Buck – excellent as usual).
Solondz’s previous films revealed a particular talent for simultaneously repulsing the audience and making them laugh. In this respect, ‘Fiction’ is the stronger half of the film, though there is nothing to match the power of Happiness. Similarly, the second half starts well, but the characters never really sufficiently engage your attention.
Ultimately, then, knowing that a third section once existed, it’s impossible to watch Storytelling without speculating on what might have been. It’s still worth watching, as the first section is impressive, it has its fair share of dark laughs and there are several individual scenes of interest, but in the end, this will disappoint Solondz fans who, understandably, expected more from his third film.