One of the hardest things for a truly independent filmmaker at a festival is competing with the high-profile titles. I try to balance what I watch when I’m in a festival environment, known and unknown, and sometimes it really pays off. I like taking a chance on something you’ve never heard of starring no one you know written and directed by a name that’s totally unfamiliar to you. And I like when I’m rewarded for it.
John Bryant’s “The Overbrook Brothers,” from a screenplay co-written by Jason Foxworth, is one of those lovely surprises, a strong, consistent, occasionally ugly comed about sibling rivalry taken to a punishing extreme, adoption, identity, and maturity. It’s of the current school of the uncomfortable, comedy that is about a sort of unbearable reality. Mark Reeb and Nathan Harlan play Todd and Jason, brothers who have been locked in a sort of hyper-exaggerated Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner rivalry that reduces both of them to six-year-olds every time they’re together.
Jason wants to get married to Shelly, played by Laurel Whitsett, and he’s kept her completely separate from his family. When a holiday brings them together, it’s obvious that he’s totally freaking out about it, and once it happens, it’s obvious why he’s totally freaking out. Todd should not be allowed near decent folk. He’s Hannibal Lecter, emotionally. He just pokes Jason in the soft spots as soon as he sees him. And he’s got a huge piece of information that he’s just dying to lay on Jason this year, a bombshell that he uses as a weapon in a breathtakingly cruel moment: Jason is adopted.
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As I’ve said, most recently when commenting over what I think is ridiculous hysterical overreaction to the traier for “Orphan,” I’m adopted, and I’ve seen it handled both responsibly and irresponsibly in films. I don’t think it’s the defining characteristic of most adopted people’s lives. I think of myself as “adopted” in the same way that I think of myself as “right-handed.” It just sort of is. It’s certainly not important to me, beyond a general gratitude that my adopted parents are the most awesome people on the planet. The reason I don’t make it the thing I carry around as my cross is because I was told early, when I was young, and it was no big thing. My parents didn’t hide it from me, and when we added my sister to the family, she was adopted, too. That’s just how it worked for my family. Cool beans. I can imagine that things would have been radically different if my parents didn’t tell me until I accidentally found out at the age of 24. That would sort of rock my world, and not in a funny sitcom Hollywood way, either. That’s what “The Overbrook Brothers” gets right. There are definitely laughs in this film, but they’re dark and difficult laughs.
When Todd learns that he’s adopted as well, it sends the two of them on a road trip to try to sort out who they really are, to each other and to themselves. Shelly travels with Jason, but she’s a third wheel. These two guys who have spent their whole lives competing have just been told that they aren’t who they thought they were. Reeb is, as I’ve said, quite disturbing at times, like a young John Malkovich, and Harlan makes a great foil for him. There’s one scene in particular between them and John Jones, who plays their father, as he tries to explain why he didn’t tell them… it’s devastating. And I confess, the fact that Jones looks just like my Uncle Bill, my dad’s brother, it just hit really close to home. I don’t think Jones plays anything in the film as comedy, and that emotionally direct quality to the film’s first act really allows for how deranged some of it gets later. It’s a worthy first film, marking writer director John Bryant as someone to watch in the future.
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