For all involved, prolific author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman’s 2008 book “Downtown Owl” sets the stage for a number of firsts. For starters, it’s Klosterman’s earliest fiction novel and is the source at the heart of Lily Rabe (“The Tender Bar”) and Hamish Linklater’s (“Midnight Mass”) joint directorial debut which just premiered at the Tribeca Festival.
If only the freshness associated with all these firsts was felt in the film by Rabe and Linklater, who are both creative collaborators and real-life partners. Instead, something feels stale, strange and out-of-focus right at the start of “Downtown Owl,” a cold and aimless 91-minute feature that makes its compact runtime feel anything but, while broadly navigating its small town rural tale with little insight and even less purpose.
The set-up of the script (penned by Linklater, often with perplexing dialogue) is promising enough, introducing us to the fictional town of Owl, North Dakota (Klosterman’s home state) through the eyes of one of its newest residents. High school literature teacher Julia (Rabe) has just left her familial problems behind back in the big city to start, transformed and happy, elsewhere. Or so she thinks because this quaint town that exists in 1983 as if it’s still the ’50s isn’t willing to make it any easier for her. So much for the cliché that is the simple yet fulfilling pleasures of small-town life.
The chirpy teacher Naomi (an overacting Vanessa Hudgens, the only person styled aggressively to look like the ’80s) is among the first to take Julia under her wing. She blurts “wear your least comfortable bra” to Julia before taking her to one of the town’s popular watering holes, where desperate, heavy boozers frequently hit on women in a forgotten locale, so overlooked that its cinema gets popular fare like “E.T.” a whole year late. What are people to do in a place like this if not spend their spare time drinking?
Julia also meets the school’s forlorn quarterback Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein), depressed about the messy circumstances of the girl he loves (Arden Michalec as Tina), who dates the school’s slimy Coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock) in what seems to be the hottest open-secret scandal of Owl. Rounding out the circle is Horace, the old football fan, played pensively by Ed Harris in a performance that resembles his melancholic turn in “The Lost Daughter.”
Among the chief issues of “Downtown Owl” is its tonal hesitation. While no film has to be only one thing, Rabe and Linklater’s feature can’t seem to commit to any of its ambitious mannerisms. In that regard, this is a movie that neither works as a quirky dark comedy about the hapless people of a small town (on that note, the film is painfully unfunny), nor as a period piece on the anxieties of the Reagan era, no matter how many “1984” references the characters throw at you.
With bizarre stylistic choices throughout—such as an animated segment that introduces Owl, as well as “inner thought” title cards that accompany Julia’s dialogue in one scene—everything seems random and incoherently experimental. It’s almost as if the filmmakers decided to try a bunch of things for no reason, in case one of them worked.
Perhaps more problematic in “Downtown Owl” is the lack of character development. By the time the film’s midpoint arrives, with a frustrated Julia not getting anywhere with her romantic interest Vance (an underutilized Henry Golding), the town’s lonesome celebrity rancher, you realize you have no idea what any of these characters are about. Persistently, they keep themselves out of the audience’s emotional reach.
The film’s premise and framing device culminates in a historic snowstorm that catches the main players off-guard, and even in danger. But whatever the symbolic meaning of that storm is, “Downtown Owl” doesn’t survive it, getting buried deeper in a messy and vague register. (And whether the main cast makes it, you will be hard pressed to think of a reason to care.)
In one scene Rabe’s fish-out-of-water Julia cries out, “Wait! I’m confused.” Well, one couldn’t have put it any better about the totality of this movie.