Director: Zack Parker
Starring: Margo Martindale, Hanna Hall, Adam Scarimbolo, Jim Dougherty
‘Scalene’, a recent world premiere at the ongoing Dances With Films festival, opens with a jolt, in large part because one doesn’t expect to see Margo Martindale, a veteran character actress with more than 80 credits under her belt, doing physical battle with Hanna Hall, the young Jenny from ‘Forrest Gump’, and later costar of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ remake. And yet there they are — one with a gun, the other in flight. They scuffle, yell and run about, giving clues of a greater familiarity with one another. Soon we’re winding backwards in time, and learning more about the specifics of just how things went so wrong.
Scalene bills itself as a perceptual thriller, which is a perhaps fancy way of saying it’s a psychological drama that toys with audience sympathies via shifting perspectives. Martindale stars as Janice Trimble, the single mother of Jakob (Adam Scarimbolo), a 26-year-old, live-in mute with other unspecified developmental and/or behavioral disabilities. When she starts quasi-dating divorcee Charles (Jim Dougherty), Janice places a few fliers for a part-time caregiver, and soon-to-graduate college student Paige Alexander (Hall), looking for work to bolster her resume with potential social work further down the line, responds to Janice’s need. Eventually there’s an accusation of rape, which pits the two women against one another.
‘Scalene’ unfolds more or less in reverse, actually, with a mediator advising Janice to accept a court-ordered psychiatric hold and multi-year rehabilitation program for Jakob, and the tearful mother swearing that her son is innocent. As director Zack Parker, working from a script co-written with Brandon Owens, navigates back in time, the film juggles two slight and eventually increasingly divided points-of-view in regards to Janice’s treatment of Jakob.
There’s a nice ambiguity captured by scenes in which Janice greets Paige curtly, or acts toward Jakob in the same manner in Hanna’s presence. The screenplay, though, doesn’t allow Martindale a lot of chances to trade in quiet subtlety, of which she is certainly capable. Instead, there’s a slavish and somewhat problematic devotion to plotting which causes scenes to drag on for too long, past the point of conveying either the emotional essence of a given bit, or what’s functionally necessary to advance the narrative. Hall, too, is required to do some silent heavy lifting, and the contrast of her woodenness versus later emoting does the movie no favors.
‘Scalene’ is much more interesting when it flexes its ambition some, working to try to also incorporate Jakob’s subjective, jumbled recreated memories — which at one point find his mom recast as a physician, and introduces Paige to him in the doctor’s office, which is different from the reality we’ve seen. For a film that otherwise pivots on the offscreen spaces around a couple distinct, concrete scenes — albeit ones glimpsed from two different points-of-view — these bits are quite intriguing, a wily X-factor in how any given audience member might ultimately interpret Janice’s relationship with her son, and Hanna’s accusation.
Still, ‘Scalene’ is a thoughtful and original indie offering, and in many ways better than the sum of its parts. Director of photography Jim Timperman’s work — heavy on the close-ups when playing an emotional hand, but careful not to overly dip into singular identification — aids the movie immeasurably, and a nice twist at the end (just when one is wondering how things are going to wrap up giving what we’ve already glimpsed in the opening) delivers a to-scale sense of appreciation and satisfaction.
Written by: Brent Simon