What is a C.O.G.? That question is at the heart of the unimaginatively titled C.O.G. (opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood on Friday, September 20), director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s (Easier with Practice) sophomore effort. The answer isn’t terribly surprising, but turns out to be one of the more predictable aspects of what is otherwise a fine example of character-driven, American indie filmmaking.
Set in Oregon, C.O.G. stars Glee regular Jonathan Groff as ‘Samuel’, a Yale graduate (legal name: David) who’s abandoned his cell phone and comfortable Connecticut home for an opportunity to get his hands dirty and experience a ‘Grapes of Wrath’-style slice of working-class life. Arriving in the middle of nowhere after a Greydog ride from Hell, Samuel anticipates being joined in a few days by girlfriend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) for an idyllic summer spent picking apples and reading Willa Cather together.
Instead, Samuel finds himself hired by unforgiving apple magnate Hobbs (Dean Stockwell, making the most of a small but meaty role), who expects him to – shock! – work just as hard as the Mexican migrant workers he employs. Taking a break to enjoy ‘Walden’ is strictly verboten, and to make matters worse, when Jennifer arrives, her new boyfriend has come along for the ride. The summer is not going to be as idyllic as Samuel imagined.
An unexpected job opening allows the newly single Samuel to move up the road apiece for a position sorting extra fancy apples at the local packing plant. Befriending forklift operator Curly (Corey Stoll), our innocent abroad commits a series of social faux pas that compel him to quit his job and move in with John (Tony Award winner Denis O’Hare), a mentally and physically scarred Desert Storm veteran who carves Oregon-shaped jade clocks when he isn’t proselytizing on behalf of Jesus Christ.
C.O.G. examines what happens when sheltered, callow youth confronts life experience in all its infinite variety. Taking a cue from his bus journey reading material, ‘On The Origin of Species,’ Samuel proves quite adaptable, converting to Christianity with relative ease when his back is literally against the wall and outshining his mentor at his own jade carving game. Whether it’s luck, skill, or his Ivy League education that allows him to repeatedly land on his feet is left to the viewer to decide.
C.O.G. avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary American indie cinema: cinematographer Jas Shelton eschews shaky-cam antics, while editor Fernando Collins steers clear of those fashionable but annoying quick cuts. Most critically, Alvarez’ screenplay (based on an essay by David Sedaris) avoids the painfully arch wordplay of so many indie productions (I’m looking at you, Diablo Cody).
Already the winner of the New American Cinema Award at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival and a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance, C.O.G. has an outside shot at gaining some Oscar season attention if it can pick up a little box-office traction. Awards aside, however, fans of ‘70s-style character studies will appreciate Alvarez’s mature, thoughtful work.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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