Now, Forager: Film Review
Jason Cortlund, Tiffany Esteb, Almex Lee, Gabrielle Maisels, Sabrina Morand
Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin
This offbeat indie film from Jason Cortlund will need to reap prizes if its to stand out from the crop and eke out a little arthouse play.
In contrast to its punning title, Now, Forager is a decidedly dour chronicle of a married couple's separation. This character-based, low-budget American production - with some Polish financing - premiered at Rotterdam, though it would surely have slotted neatly into the Berlinale's foodie-friendly 'Culinary Cinema' section, as both main characters are talented cooks who supplement their income by harvesting delicious wild mushrooms. While a delicate affair of subtle and original flavors, it's squarely festival-oriented material which will need to reap prizes around the circuit if it's to stand out from the indie crop and eke out a little arthouse play.
Not only does Jason Cortlund play the co-lead here - surly, self-reliant thirtysomething Lucien Echevarria - he also wrote the screenplay and, with Julia Halperin, co-edited and took care of the production design. In addition, he's credited with "additional fungi cinematography", crafting the beautifully immaculate close-ups of choice mycological specimens that punctuate a season-hopping narrative. Lucien, who seems more much engaged with fungus than people, provides a mouthwatering commentary for each - ethereal Lion's Mane, we're told, "tastes like shellfish when braised."
The story is straightforward enough, with all conflicts spelled out baldly in the dialogue. Lucien's wife Regina (Tiffany Esteb) is tiring of their hard-scrabble, off-the-grid economizing - "we don't have any margin of error, we have no savings, no health insurance" - and hankers for the security of regular employment. This she finds at a so-hip-it-hurts eaterie specializing in octopus and other seafood delights like "raw halibut with periwinkle salad."
These fancy establishments are the main clients for 'Lu' and 'Reg', who scour the unspoiled rural areas closest to their small Jersey City apartment in search of edible mushrooms. When Lucien ventures farther afield on a solo trip, the consequences are unfortunate - in a nicely-handled scene of uneasy tension, he bumps into a pair of machete-wielding Russian heavies while exploring a Maryland forest. He fares little better when he takes a one-off chef-assignment for a highly-demanding, high-society Washington housewife - played, in an extended cameo of pitch-perfect intonations and tellingly casual gestures, by noteworthy newcomer Gabrielle Maisels.
Maisels' sparklingly vivid contribution is overall rather more impactful than Cortlund's monotonously taciturn glowering as Lucien - a proudly old-school, anti-technology perfectionist whose tensed-up humorlessness pervades the film's entire ecosystem. After Lu and Reg go their separate ways - there's no break-up scene as such - the script alternates between the pair, Reg getting a job in a down-homey 'Basque' restaurant where the diners react badly to her non-ersatz Basque cuisine (both Echevarrias are of Basque ancestry.)
As a critique of mainstream, commercially-dominated American catering - and, by implication, American culture - Now, Forager is quietly cutting, questioning if Lu and Reg's principled approach can be viable even at a time when 'foraging' has become an increasingly widespread, even fashionable, response to straitened economic circumstances. It's a risky business at the best of times - Lucien's narration dispassionately details how eating certain specimens can result in "vomiting, cramps, bloody diarrhea, liver and kidney-failure, death" - and Now, Forager contains a stern disclaimer in the end-credit crawl advising that mushroom-gathering should only be done with expert assistance.
Those credits also include the two-line Walt Whitman poem which provided Olive Higgins Prouty with the title of her romantic bestseller of 1941 - Now, Voyager - the basis for Irving Rapper's perennially popular Bette Davis / Paul Henreid weepie of the following year. With all due respect to Jonathan Nastasi's limpid digital cinematography and Jeremy Fleishman's immersive sound-design, it's most unlikely that in future decades Now, Forager will be held in similar esteem. Cortlund and company's film is such an impeccably low-key affair, however, it's hard to imagine them echoing the Rapper picture's famous last line by asking for the moon - let alone the stars.
Bottom line: Likeably unassuming, good-looking US indie may exert offbeat appeal to the foodie crowd.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Market), Feb. 14, 2012.
Production companies: Now Forager LLC, Monternia
Cast: Jason Cortlund, Tiffany Esteb, Almex Lee, Gabrielle Maisels, Sabrina Morand
Directors: Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin
Screenwriter: Jason Cortlund
Producers: Julia Halperin, Kit Bland
Co-producers: Rebbie Ratner, Krzysztof Szpetmanski
Director of photography: Jonathan Nastasi
Production designers: Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin
Costumes: Amber Sexton
Editor: Julia Halperin
Music: Chris Brokaw
Sales Agent: New Europe, Warsaw
No rating, 93 minutes.