Title: Trophy Kids
Director: Josh Sugarman
Starring: Ryan Eggold, David Gallagher, Tahyna Tozzi, Nathan Lee Graham, Tibor Feldman, David Thornton, Tania Raymonde
A world premiere, in-competition title at the 14th annual Dances With Films festival, ‘Trophy Kids’ is that rare independent film that turns its lens on the moviemaking process itself, and doesn’t morph into a self-congratulating circle jerk of air-quote misunderstood artistic grievance. Instead, it’s ambitious and playful, flirty and mysterious, puffed-up and yet also nervous and candid about its ambivalence and uncertainty toward storytelling form, and what makes a film a true work of art. In short, it’s the sort of indie movie that, well, gives indie movies a good name.
Co-written and produced by Brandon Yankowitz and director Josh Sugarman, the film takes its name from the coddled millennial generation (loosely defined as those born after 1975) whose every little action is applauded and rewarded. Max (Ryan Eggold, sort of the physical embodiment of Adrien Brody by way of Justin Chatwin) is a listless, seemingly shallow nightclub owner/party promoter who’s living well in New York City in no small part to the financial underwriting of his parents, who operate an unusual online university. Playwright Reid (David Gallagher, late of ‘7th Heaven’) is a somber young guy, serious about his art and seriously broke at least in part as a result of that passion. While crashing with a friend, Reid meets Quinn (Australian-born Tahyna Tozzi), who conceals from him the fact that she’s a department store heiress.
Later, when Max gets it in his head to become a movie producer and make a film about his own life, he enlists the help of Quinn, who in turn turns to Reid. Quinn pitches Reid as a unique talent, and urges him to take the script-for-hire assignment from Max — which also involves moving in with him — so that he can get a place of his own and better fund his art. Slowly, Max is revealed to be a bit different than Reid first thought, and his contemptuousness evaporates. When Max keeps delaying in paying him and Reid also finds out about Quinn’s (white?) lie, however, he becomes both suspicious and angry. Will all his work for Max turn out to have been for nothing?
In its own to-scale fashion, ‘Trophy Kids’ manages to be audacious without being ostentatious. Sugarman and Yankowitz open their movie on a scene of heightened drama and then rewind the narrative, working back to this point in a sly fashion that reframes its meaning. Throughout the film, there are subtle shifts in perspective which at first seem lazy or incongruous, but ultimately underscore different characters’ views of moviemaking and storytelling.
Fine work by cinematographer Austin Schmidt abets this cause, as do some solid performances. Gallagher ably captures the artistic restlessness of a guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone around him, and doesn’t understand why that in and of itself isn’t enough to secure his future. But it’s Eggold, watchable and effortlessly charismatic, who takes Max from callow and untested to something verging on mature. He looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, sure, but there’s a sly and unexpectedly pleasant depth to his performance.
‘Trophy Kids’ isn’t fully dazzling as some sort of dizzying, deconstructionist cinematic treatise; it has its mind set firmly on entertainment as well. To this end, there is a considerable loosening of intrigue and hold in the third act. Yankowitz and Sugarman seem to have had an end point for their story, but no clear road map for how to get there from its big second-act pivot. Still, like ‘New Suit’, ‘The Blue Tooth Virgin’ and The Scenesters — a trio of other shaggy, affectionate, low-budget indie releases that each in their own way had fun creating a mixed fruit salad of genre elements and inside-Hollywood noodling — it’s original, striving and kind of darkly playful, a combination of qualities sorely lacking in American independent cinema at the moment.
Written by: Brent Simon