Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #589
Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 31, 2016
Sub-Genre: Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 82 minutes
Director: Jeff Frumess
Producer: Jeff Frumess
Screenplay: Jeff Frumess
Cinematography: Richard Vaine
Editing: Jeff Frumess
Studio: Video Business Media
Stars: Anthony Malchar, Jeffrey Alan Solomon, Adam Stordy, Charese Scott-Cooper, Kimberely A. Peterson, Dave Street, Alex Echevarria, Stevie Grossett, Jeff Frumess, David “Voice” Stein, Renee Mandel, Richard Vaine, Nick Bohun
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 T.S.O.L. “Glass Streets”
 Screaming Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You”
It’s all about modest beginnings. Some pretty notable modern filmmakers have begun with small, intimate projects that perfectly showcased what they were about. David Lynch’s Eraserhead, George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and Kevin Smith’s Clerks are just a few examples of debut features that effortlessly transcended their humble origins and placed their directors squarely on the map from the get-go. Raw potential is easy to spot in such circumstances, and in all four cases, they moved onto bigger and better things as a result. However, when you cast your mind back across the résumés of either Lynch, Romero, Lee, or Smith, these miniscule numbers still hold a great deal of weight and offer indication of just how significant a talent they possessed, even in its most unrefined form.
It pleases me greatly to add another name to that list as Jeff Frumess’s first feature-length film Romeo’s Distress provides just the same insight into the man behind the lens and precisely what he can bring to the table. Almost impossible to pigeon-hole, this micro-budget affair is a true one-off in that, while his inspirations are clear, his approach to storytelling is both fresh and indigenous. Moreover, it highlights how possible it is to create something of great merit on a shoestring budget with actors many of whom haven’t worked before and a three-strong crew pulling the strings. Whatever his vision, it was evidently shared by everyone involved, as this delightfully quirky little number punches effortlessly above its weight and it’s no small wonder that the accolades have duly followed.
It tells the tale of twentysomething James Ferrose (Anthony Malchar), an offbeat young man who is at his most content when entertaining himself. He lives in his own little world, one that endorses whimsy openly, and that is inaccessible to all those around him, with the exception of a select few. His Uncle Elmo (Dave Street) appears to be cut from the same cloth and the pair are as thick as thieves whenever they pool their collective kookiness. Other than that it’s slim pickings for James and he splits his free time between either tending for his house-bound grandma (Renee Mandel) or losing himself in his love for photography. It just so happens that James has himself something of a muse although, at this point we can but speculate over how that particular liaison ended up with all signs pointing to unfavorably.
The object of his affection is Jane (Kimberely A. Peterson) and we are provided fleeting glimpses of the pair in their natural habitat, which just so happens to accommodate his numerous quirks. These episodes are revealed through color flashbacks and, once dizziness sets in from all their giddy exertions, we are shunted back into monochrome, where the vast majority of the story plays out. The very first time we get intimate with the forlorn Romeo of the title, the world around him is presented out-of-focus and this perfectly captures his sense of isolation. Whatever happened with Jane, it has left him quarantined from reality and this suits him down to the ground as all he really desires is another second basking in her incandescent light and the world around James plays a rather minor supporting role in this reverie.
When not entertaining himself with affectionate odes to cheesecake and finding inventive new ways to get his five-a-day, James is being set upon by the thuggish Bobby (Adam Stordy) at every turn and this fearsome antagonist’s satisfaction appears to derive from his misery. However, while Bobby is a constant thorn in his side, Jane’s embittered father Dale (Jeff Solomon) has an even greater will to afflict hardship on the young dreamer and, though his motivation and endgame are still hazy at this point, his intentions most certainly aren’t. Frumess refrains from spelling anything out, and instead, requests only that we allow James to act as our tour guide, withholding just enough information to keep us guessing but providing sufficient enlightenment to ensure we are following.
Of course, this would be impossible without a strong lead to act as anchor and first-timer Malchar positively flourishes under what is evidently astute direction. In many ways, James reminds me of John Amplas from Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Martin as there is an almost feline quality about him. Every time we have him labelled as an unstable nutbag, he bleeds a little more melancholia, and reminds us that he lives, breathes, and hurts like any other. This is a tricky balancing act to pull off particularly for one so fresh behind the bifocals; but it speaks volumes for both how well Malchar fathomed his mandate and also his faith in Frumess that he gives such a spirited, devil-may-care account of himself.
Better yet, every other pawn is in on the trick, with Solomon suitably sinistrous as the rock obscuring James’s view of the flower garden. Frumess hangs from his weathered features like a dusty throw over, caressing his gloriously expressive face with his lens at every opportunity as his stimulation becomes increasingly clear. During one wonderfully strobe-like and excruciatingly drawn-out exchange, we are gifted insight into the anguish driving him on and also the lengths he will go to in order to do what he believes to be just.
Meanwhile, Stordy is a quiet revelation as Bobby, and what begins as your typical bruiser role, unfurls into something far more noteworthy as he starts to question how far he is willing to go to follow protocol. What’s remarkable here is that there are no weak links to be discerned and them’s the markings of a labor of love right there Grueheads. This could so easily have been a blink-and-it’s-over short and it is testament to a job very well done that 82 minutes never once feels excessive. Also worthy of note here is the sound design, which plays a part in setting each scene and marshals as opposed to distracting.
Romeo’s Distress is the rare creature that has regrettably become somewhat endangered in recent years as it highlights how far you can go with a bare-bones crew, limited resources, and a simple idea. Numerous influences have been noted from John Waters to Edgar Allan Poe and unsurprisingly William Shakespeare, but I prefer to focus on the unique voice of his own that Frumess clearly possesses. This isn’t a film for everyone and some may accuse him of being pretentious, just by opting to tell his tale primarily in black and white but they will sadly be culpable of not smelling the flowers.
Considering the film hones in on the desolation of its main protagonist, he manages to comment just as strongly on the triumph of human spirit and unending love, and that is the tell-tale sign of a filmmaker with far more to communicate in years to come. His soul is invested in every single frame of Romeo’s Distress and his gift to us is a glimpse more than worthy of remembrance. Hell, it even made carrots more appealing (cantaloupe somewhat less so) and I’d merrily offer Jane my blessing to assist me in getting my daily five.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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