Writer-director Todd Solondz has a knack for making us feel downright uncomfortable. He did it in his twisted debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), with a young Brendan Sexton III announcing his intentions to rape an even younger Heather Matarazzo. He did it in Happiness (1998), in nearly every scene. And he's providing more squirm-inducing moments in Storytelling, a film with less intensity than Happiness, but with a continuing streak of intellectually challenging dialogue and unforgiving subject matter.
Aside from Solondz's decidedly risky topics, his format in Storytelling takes chances. It presents two separate shorts, entitled "Fiction" and "Non-fiction," with no obvious connection between the two. The only true thread is that both comment on the telling of tales, the shifting of points of view, and the way most people in Solondz's suburban landscapes constantly paddle their painful lives upstream.
The first story will raise considerable ire from a variety of viewers, for many reasons. A white college student (the brave Selma Blair) has a graphic encounter with a black professor (an equally brave Robert Wisdom), in a sequence full of taboo moments and dicey dialogue. Watching "Fiction," however, is made even more vexing when Solondz places a giant red box over a particular act, a proactive move made to avoid an NC-17 rating and keep his Fine Line contract intact. Sure, it makes its own comment in a movie about the act of telling stories, but there's no denying that it detracts from the intensity of the scene (the film was shown without alteration at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival).
When the student translates her experiences into a short story for an English course, the class reacts with a gamut of responses Solondz himself has certainly heard about his own work. The tale asks us: When can we believe the written word? What is an author's meaning? When does a seemingly exploitive idea have truth at its core? In addition to his stinging script, credit Solondz with his cast choices -- a thin, dyed-blonde Blair, and a large, dark-skinned Wisdom. Oh, did I mention the boyfriend with cerebral palsy?
Story number two is less arresting and tangible, but more comprehensive. Scooby, a loser of a high school student (Mark Webber) meets Toby (Paul Giamatti, Man on the Moon), a loser of an adult hoping to make a documentary feature about being a teenager. While Toby's hapless camera gets the standard, over-simplified B.S., Scooby's quietly screwed up family falls apart undocumented. Solondz paints them, including parents John Goodman and Julie Hagerty, as a collection of TV clans gone '90s (even their names -- Scooby, Brady, Livingston -- are TV references). Except this seemingly happy suburban unit has a perfect son (Jonathan Osser) who wants to hypnotize his Dad, a middle boy (Noah Fleiss) who's got disaster looming, and an overworked, Latina housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros, Chuck & Buck) with a grandson on death row. Definitely not the Bradys, but hey, maybe the Bradys were like this once the cameras were turned off...
"Non-fiction," in being more narratively complex, feels more like the extraordinary Happiness, where angry fate just slides characters around in a seemingly random way, with more harshness than even the grittiest street movies. Scooby wants to become a TV celebrity, but is so aimless that his only ambition is to get there through connections. Can he get his wish just by smoking dope in the same bathroom that Toby stumbles into? And what are Toby's plans for Scooby and his family once the editing of the documentary begins? Again, Solondz asks us to consider levels of exploitation, disillusionment, and sheer mean-spiritedness.
Solondz's most impressive skill is in taking situations that would seem almost comedic on the page, and wedging them into sad, brutal alterna-scenarios. Lupe Ontiveros, a regular character actress almost unrecognizable here, could play to canned laughter as the struggling maid, but Solondz' edge-of-reality dialogue coupled with Ontiveros' tough performance, make her anything but funny. This has something of a polished Cassavettes feel to it, and, as with Cassavettes's work, the actors reap the rewards of having such strong content.
So, we've got two very different short films, both about the writing of experiences, the making of films, the telling of stories. The shorter of the two is raw and, on the surface, simplistic -- a short story itself (). The second is wider, smarter, and leaves the viewer with that helpless feeling one gets watching a Solondz film, witnessing hopeless people live their tragicomic lives ().
Note that if you want to see "Fiction" without the big red box, you need only check out the Storytelling DVD, which provides both the R-rated and unrated/uncensored versions of the film. No other extras to speak of, but that box is nuisance enough to seek out the disc.