Friday, September 22, 2000

peter. / *** (2000)

If the term “less is more” still carries any significance with the average moviegoing crowd, than a simple little picture like “peter,” which is stripped down to the very rawest of human drama, could easily melt the hearts of viewers in ways that few films this year have. Maybe those audiences will have better luck in than me in getting past the drawbacks. The third feature film from ambitious director John Swon is easily one of the most smooth, appeasing independent pictures I have seen in recent memory, and yet one that doesn’t do its material complete justice. There’s nothing wrong with keeping things at a bare minimum, but shouldn’t it at least be a given to include a few side details so that we actually know what we are dealing with?

Allow me to explain. The title character peter (John Swon informs me that he is “so lacking in any definite personality or moral strength that we decided to rob him of a capital P, and as such rob him of being an actual person”), is a kid with a near-flawless knack for art (particularly sketching human figures with an apparent sense of solitude), who suffers from some mental disorder that forces him to be cooped up in a local care facility. A doctor and psychology intern in one scene argue over his condition like enemies on a debate team, throwing evidence at each other that displays him either as dependent on constant care or capable of leading a normal life in the outside world. But what exactly is peter’s condition? Something physical? Or perhaps a seriously damaging form of depression? There is no probing explanation on to what troubles him, making it more difficult for us as the viewers to get into the material. Swon argues it should be left up to the viewer to decide peter’s condition; I’m not sure if I agree.

The story begins with a stern series of shots of peter starting a new day, as he is awakened by an alarm clock and then gets dressed. Each of these activities goes extremely slow on screen, with breaks in between certain activities in which peter looks out the window in a sense of wonder and sadness. Scenes this slow can often deaden our anticipation for further events, but Swon effectively casts Peter against a bright window light, creating a sense of self-seclusion that sinks in slowly but surely in the audience’s minds. Once his isolation is established, we are introduced to Denise (who is effectively portrayed by Sara Stevenson), a Psychology major who is preparing to intern at the facility where peter, and other mental patients, are cared for.

Life outside of work is anything but rewarding for her, though, as she lives with a rather anal-retentive boyfriend who drowns his sorrows in bottles of liquor. When she begins to show interest in peter, it’s because she’s sees the kind of potential in him that she sees in herself, not just because she wants desperately to help someone out of their “medicated fog.” Peter’s art skills intrigue Denise, and she buys him paints and brushes to help provoke those desires, eventually challenging the facility doctor to letting him free to live his own life. In the meantime, Denise pays little attention to her own life, and before the movie is over, her relationship with her boyfriend crumbles.

The big problem here, other than the lack of information, is the movie’s pace. For the first half hour, a good, firm tempo is established, but once Denise gets peter out of the facility, the movie slows down and almost forgets what direction it is moving towards. Then there’s the issue regarding the film’s ending: what exactly happens to these two people? Where does the road lead them? A more firm sense of closure could have been constructed to conclude things than what currently exists, even if the future of Denise and peter is meant to be left up to the imagination. The movie feels curiously unfinished.

But all the same, “peter” is a very determined picture, with a heart of gold guiding its characters through the rivers of life, teaching them how to break the cycle and take new ventures. The production budget is said to be around $5,000, which is very small, but it doesn’t show much; the movie features solid editing, concise direction, and basic but effective camera angles that don’t draw away attention from the more important qualities (such as intelligent dialogue and terrific, firmly established acting). I am satisfied with “peter” based on its “less is more” style. I just wish it could have answered a few more of my questions.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); Not Rated; 79 Minutes

Peter: Marcus Edward
Denise: Sara Stevenson
Mike: Doug Aamoth
Dr. Macy: David Fox-Brenton
Thalian: Nick Schrader

Directed and screenwritten by John Swon; story by Marcus Edward and John Swon

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