The Elephant King
EmptyOpens: Friday, Oct. 17 (Unison Films)
Americans behaving badly abroad seek independence and redemption in writer-director Seth Grossman's "The Elephant King." Vaguely pitched somewhere between indie-gritty and predictably conventional, the film struggles to strike a manageable equilibrium, much as its characters attempt to navigate the prospects and pitfalls of a footloose life overseas.
Lacking a sufficiently compelling cast or a genuinely engaging narrative, production company Unison Films' first foray into distribution will likely face widespread indifference in an art house market already awash with independent releases and awards-season specialty contenders.
University dropout Jake Hunt (Jonno Roberts) is adrift in Thailand, dodging criminal fraud charges involving his graduate research grant. Back home, his anxious, controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ineffectual father (Josef Sommer) wait for him to return and face the music, while his emotionally fragile younger brother, Oliver (Tate Ellington), dreams of joining his brother's exotic adventure.
The opportunity arrives when Jake impetuously sends Oliver a round-trip airline ticket, landing him in the northern provincial city of Chiang Mai, where Jake leads a stereotypically debauched expat lifestyle, liberally indulging in booze, drugs and the tourist-oriented sex trade.
With orders from his mother to bring Jake home to prepare for his impending trial, unworldly Oliver quickly loses his bearings in the fluid foreign setting, particularly after Jake's sometime-girlfriend Lek (Florence Faivre), an enticing Thai-Caucasian beauty, effortlessly seduces him. As family relations, romantic entanglements and poorly laid plans inexorably unravel, Oliver finds coming to grips with the realities of an unfamiliar society and his brothers' mundane addictions a formidable challenge.
Extrapolating the script from his own personal history and experiences living in Thailand, Grossman seeks resonance in a perceived clash and confluence of characters and cultures that registers weakly onscreen. Ellington's role and performance are both too understated to render Oliver a persuasive protagonist. Although Roberts plays Jake to the hilt, it's a fairly one-note character.
Despite an unflattering depiction of Thailand and particularly the role of women in the tourist industry, Eurasian actress Faivre adeptly embodies the conflict of traditional and contemporary Thai lifestyles with a promising and nuanced performance, while Burstyn is reliably commanding in her few brief scenes.
Grossman shows somewhat more flair for directing the camera with a fluid and unobtrusive style, though the overly restrained cinematography provides for few enhancements.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Tate Ellington, Florence Faivre, Jonno Roberts, Josef Sommer, Pawalit Mongkolpisit.
Director-screenwriter: Seth Grossman.
Producers: Emanuel Michael, Tamar Sela, Tom Waller.
Executive producer: Ryan Brooks.
Director of photography: Diego Quemada-Diez.
Production designer: Lee Yaniv.
Music: Adam Balazs.
Costume designer: Karen Yan.
Editors: Saar Klein, Lee Chatametikool, Inbal B. Lessner.
Rated R, 90 minutes.