Film Review: The Mentor

The Mentor

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There’s a fine line between pretentious indie film and pretentious indie film satire. Moez Solis not only walks that line in his debut feature, The Mentor, he also repeatedly crosses it in both directions. It’s worth checking out for its atypical protagonist – an aspiring filmmaker who is also a young woman of color. Solis’ script has echoes of Cecil B. Demented and Adaptation but he may have gone a little too far with the meta-ness.

Nilah (Brandi Nicole Payne) is a student in need of a mentor. She solicits the sage advice of touted indie filmmaker, Claire Adams (Liz Sklar) to find the inspiration and resources she needs in order to complete her first film. But their session is cut short when they’re kidnapped by a desperate group of indie filmmakers who want to hold Claire ransom in exchange for a production budget.

The Mentor is voiceover heavy, but not overly expository. We’re privy to Nilah’s obsessive internal artist monologue. Payne commands the screen with her presence, as she quotes the Gods of indie film and her “mama” to illuminate her motivations.

“Mama always said you needed a guide to get to anywhere of importance.”

Here, Nilah is our guide through the seedy underbelly of the Art Life. Nilah and Claire’s captors sport bird masks and matching code names: Mr. Owl (Mike Bash), Mr. Raven (Michael James Kelly), Mrs. Hawk (Julie Lockfield), Mr. Emu (Santiago Rosas), and Mr. Pigeon (Corey Jackson). At first, it is unclear what this group wants, other than to argue over the “rules” of independent cinema. Eventually, they reveal their motivations. But then a larger conspiracy unravels, and it turns out that everyone is wearing a mask of one sort or another.

The best thing Solis did was hire Payne and Sklar. If Nilah was just another white Incel with a script, and Claire was a middle-aged male blowhard, this thing would be practically unwatchable. Instead, he gives us two women at very different stages in their artistic journeys, discussing the finer points of what it takes to get a film made. Any woman with an IMDb credit has had to work approximately 80% harder to get there. Claire and Nilah’s conversations take on double meaning as the story plays out according to doctrine they’ve elucidated.

I also have to hand it to Solis for using Werner Herzog as the name-checked filmic inspiration for pretty much all of the characters. Herzog is dynamic and wholly original, and not who most pretentious film types latch on to as their patron saint.

Solis presupposes that what aspiring indie filmmakers really want in a mentor is someone to tell them they’re undiscovered geniuses. It also scathingly exposes the hypocrisy of artists that believe mistreating people is part of the process. But I feel like Solis painted himself into a corner by (as he has stated in interviews) purposefully creating a film that requires multiple viewings to properly appreciate. It’s one thing to plant Easter Eggs. It’s entirely another to make a film that you HAVE to watch repeatedly to fully grasp. There’s not much for laypeople or casual cinema-goers to enjoy. However, I can see this one becoming a hidden gen amongst artsy up-and-comers.

Film Review: Toss It

tossit2Michele Remsen’s debut feature, Toss It is billed as an “anti-romantic comedy” and it’s a great elevator pitch, to be sure. But once the elevator stops, there’s not quite enough there to back it up. It is a romantic comedy in the sense that it’s about a mis-matched couple finding their way to love through an exchange of witty banter. In doing so, the film eschews the hijinks customary in the romantic comedy genre. But the film’s second act brings in two other couples connected by blood and it becomes more of a pro-W.A.S.P.y family dramedy.

Remsen co-stars alongside Phil Burke as Emily and Finn respectively – two middle aged longtime friends who trade barbs like Beatrice and Benedick but are wary of entering into a relationship. Emily is jaded about men in general and Finn’s promiscuity does nothing to lessen her exasperation. Finn’s brother, Bobby (Eric Goss), is following the traditional path their parents took of marrying young and immediately climbing aboard the baby train. Finn is torn between following his heart with Emily or considering his philandering father, Jim (Stephen Bogardus), proof that some men just can’t be monogamous. Emily has feelings for Finn but doesn’t want to live like Finn’s mother, Adele (Blair Ross), turning a blind eye to infidelity.

Adele and Jim don’t particularly like Bobby’s bride, Natalie (Allison Frasca), but Bobby thinks she’ll “make a great mother” and knows what she wants out of life. Finn, takes after his dad in the flirtation department but doesn’t know how to reconcile his prowess with his desire to be loved. Finn may or may not love Emily. He doesn’t know for sure because he’s never been in love. She thinks she might love him but knows his reputation and doesn’t want to get hurt. They’re both approaching middle age and, as the only single people left at Bobby and Natalie’s wedding, they talk about finally giving it a go. But when Emily backs out at the last minute, Finn ends up in bed with Marie (Jenny Zerke), a pseudo bohemian and Natalie’s maid of honor. Marie says that she only slept with Finn to piss off Natalie, for whom she still carries a torch. (I’m not exactly sure why she thought this would work…) It doesn’t affect Natalie and Bobby’s relationship at all, but it does result an extremely homophobic rant from Natalie and Emily deciding this is proof that Finn can’t be trusted.

But then Emily and Finn have some time to think and, after a chance encounter in Vegas, they decide to give it a go, only to have life interfere immediately. The hours-old couple must convene with Finn’s family at his childhood home to face a tragic loss. Finn leaves Emily to fend for herself while she encounters the demanding and closed-minded Natalie (Allison Frasca), Adele, who is verging on a breakdown, and pervy Uncle Claude (Malachy McCourt) who insists on telling dirty jokes and kissing all the new women in the family on the lips. There’s the family you have, the family you choose, and then the family you get when you choose one person and they come with a whole bunch of family that you would otherwise avoid at all cost.

Remsen’s script contains a lot of heady themes. Is romance overrated? Are people who follow a traditional path just deluding themselves? It is unhealthy or a kindness to pretend your partner’s infidelities never happened? Is there still time to reinvent yourself in your sixties?

There is a definitely an audience for this film, and I hope they find it. But I had a hard time getting past the heteronormative, white, upper class perspective. In 2020, I just can’t abide a storyline that suggests women sleeping together is a phase that one must get over in order to have a truly meaningful relationship with a man. Natalie says as much when Marie confesses her love. Later, Marie does indeed find a man and that whole conflict is resolved. One could argue that Remsen was merely inventing characters, not condoning behaviors, and maybe she even knows people exactly like this. But we’re not far enough along in the fight for fair and accurate representation on screen to have a character be so ignorant and hateful and then have the recipient of that ignorance later prove the bigot right.

I very much support women in film and I’m thrilled that a woman “of a certain age” is doing it for herself. There is an audience for this film. I wish Remsen the best of luck. I’m sure there are plenty of affluent white folks who still want to see their myopic world view in cinema without any of that pesky diversity poking through, but it ain’t me.