Anytime I sit down to review a screener for a micro-budget indie film (anything under say $20,000), I’m filled with a mixed feeling that I need to both hold the film up to my normal standards, but also leave enough wiggle room to take into account budgetary restrictions.
When I checked IMDB, it had the directorial debut from director Aaron Gum clocked at just $3000. Which is impressive given the movies end result. Obviously the film’s not perfect, far from it, but if nothing else it shows a bright and interesting new voice (or voices) in the independent world.
Bent Over Neal follows the story of brother’s in law and best friends Neal (Darrick Silkman) and Rob (Faustus McGreeves). Rob is married to Lisa (Chelsea Wagoner), Neal’s sister. The film’s first act is dedicated to a camping trip with Neal, Rob and their buddy Liam (Walter Shatley).
The camping trip starts off as a getaway for the three men, but acts as a catalyst for Neal’s budding depression and a short lived confusion with sexuality.
These early scenes are filled with an interesting balance between warm bromance humor that happens to be both physical and dialogue driven. It’s also the part of the movie where most of the aforementioned restrictions take place.
All four of the actors introduced early on have varying degrees of skill. Wagoner feels the most natural where Silkman does a bit of overacting, he has this weird sort of drawl that may have been attempting to give him a more country accent, but it’s a bit too overdone to work effectively.
Thankfully after the opening stretch, he seems to get more comfortable in front of the camera and dials it down a few notches. McGreeves and Shatley both fit well with their respective characters, the former in particular could blossom well into a strong actor given more time and experience.
After the camping trip is called off early (due to hangers, naturally), things start to get a lot more interesting.
The central theme of Bent Over Neal, which arcs through the various vignette style scenes is definitely one of identity, sexual and otherwise.
It’s hard to fully talk about what happens without spoiling some aspects, but where Neal starts as the one in a midlife crisis, much of the focus falls to Rob, who begins to question not only his sexuality, but his marriage and his life in general. Some of the best scenes for me were between Rob and Lisa.
The two have a natural chemistry that makes it easy to believe them as a couple in matrimonial trouble. They obviously care for one another, but Rob seems to be falling into the old cliché of “I love you, but I’m not IN love with you”.
This could come off as trite in the wrong hands, but director Aaron Gum and screenwriter Faustus McGreeves keep a heavy focus on character development as opposed to major plot points and crises.
Occasionally the film can feel all over the place tonally. A scene in a bowling alley while full of funny dialogue, feels weirdly out of place within the context of the larger picture. It’s exemplified by the misuse of a very naturally funny character, Wes (Shaun Greene), who could arguably be titled the “token black guy”.
Luckily I think the filmmakers recognized this and catered the dialogue to address this concern. It’s not that the scene doesn’t work on it’s own, we just have no development in Wes as he only appears in the single scene.
It’s a minor misstep all things considered, but a guy with such a humorous demeanor and comfort in front of the camera could have been used to far better effect.
In fact that may be the films strongest aspect, the fact that these director’s shot more for ambitious insights as opposed to ambitious plotting.
When the film finished up, I found myself wanting to see more from the characters, which is a clear indication that I at least enjoyed the film.
It’s not the riskiest independent film I’ve seen, but when a film has such a clear purpose and manages to attain that goal, I count it as a win. I laughed out loud several times, felt for the characters and their issues, and thought the acting was good for the most part.
Some technical aspects aside (which are forgivable given the budget), Bent Over Neal is a strong debut from a group of filmmakers I’m interested to see more of.
It’s also a nice reminder that people are still making truly independent films, even though the independent market is becoming nearly as well known as the mainstream.
The film is currently doing the festival run, but we will keep you updated with release date information as it comes!
★★★ A reminder that you don’t need a massive budget to make your vision come alive.