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Pushing DIY filmmaking close to its creative limits, writer-directors Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder assume nearly all scripting, performing and production duties on their debut, The Planters. An offbeat indie in the vein of memorable comedies like Ghost World, Napoleon Dynamite and Rushmore that enthusiastically celebrates its own particular idiosyncrasies, this distinctive feature should enjoy a robust festival run that could build momentum for an eventual digital release.
Still despondent over the death of her parents in a freak car accident a year previous, mid-20s Martha Plant (Kotcheff) continues to occupy the family home located in a desert community near southern California’s inland Salton Sea. She’s become a bit of a recluse, shunning social contact and struggling to hold down her telemarketing job selling Clear Breeze air conditioners, a position she secured after her parents sold their company to business acquaintance Donald (Michael Gmur).
In reality, she’s much more passionate about her side gig, stashing items that she shoplifts from a local curio shop in metal tins that she buries in the surrounding desert landscape, an activity she refers to as “planting.” Surreptitiously advertising their GPS coordinates so that local treasure hunters can recover the tins and their contents, she collects modest cash payments left behind as compensation. On one of her regular planting trips Martha encounters Sadie Mayflower (Leder), a young woman with multiple personalities and a fixation on Jesus Christ who’s off her meds and on the run from a mental health facility that’s recently closed, leaving her homeless.
Leder and Kotcheff’s script effectively establishes the film’s whimsical tone while exploring a fated friendship between two poorly adjusted and isolated women searching for connection with consistently inconsistent results. Traumatized by her parents’ death, Martha tries to avoid other people, but can’t bear the loneliness she’s created in her life. Sadie faces similar issues dealing with her mental illness, although she manages to maintain a more positive outlook overall, especially after Martha offers to let her move in.
In exchange, Sadie assists with Martha’s telemarketing calls when Donald threatens to fire her if she doesn’t sell 30 air-conditioning units within two weeks. Sadie’s coaching helps Martha develop a more personable phone manner that’s soon boosting sales. At the same time though, her unassimilated personalities disrupt Sadie’s attempts to provide consistent support when she begins alternately manifesting Emma, a disobedient 4-year-old, and Angie, a hard-partying troublemaker. If that’s not complicated enough, Sadie also starts encountering visions of Jesus and the Biblical prophets inside Martha’s collection of metal tins.
The filmmakers enact these religious visions with individual stop-action claymation sequences (in collaboration with animator Sam Barnett), which include not only Jesus’ renowned walk upon water and the Last Supper, but also scenes of Moses parting the Red Sea and Noah safely riding out the epic flood in his ark. Each of these tableaux also incorporates a figure of Sadie, whose increasingly intense experiences begin to cause Martha some concern.
Whether or not Leder or Kotcheff has any interest in religion or treasure hunting, they’re both completely committed to these unusual characters and their journey of mutual self-discovery. Martha in particular experiences a clear shift in perspective, as Kotcheff modulates her line delivery and body language to gradually shed Martha’s initial rigidity and awkwardness. Kotcheff gets great mileage out of Sadie’s alter egos, although the childlike Emma doesn’t possess as much range as Angie’s pissed-off party girl. Between the three of them, though, Sadie starts to find a groove that might help guide Martha back to a more authentic expression of herself, as Sadie adjusts to living within her own limitations as well.
Writing, designing, directing and shooting their feature virtually unassisted, the filmmakers grace the production with keen attention to detail and nuance, favoring a straightforward style that centers the performances and frequently draws on quirky visual humor as well. There’s a bit of Wes Anderson in their preference for overstuffed sets and deliberate framing techniques, as well as a Lynchian quality to the boldly rendered characters and penchant for unexpected camera placements.
Martha and Sadie may be imperfect, but they’re perfectly suited as best friends discovering how to value each other, and themselves, when adversity strikes. Perhaps the same could be said of Kotcheff and Leder, whose teamwork has convincingly converted the challenges of producing their first feature into a remarkably unique accomplishment.
Venue: AFI Fest (New Auteurs)
Production company: Fire Tiger Films
Cast: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, Phil Parolisi, Pepe Serna, Michael Gmur
Directors-writers: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder
Stop-motion animation: Sam Barnett
Producers: Jacqueline Beiro, Hannah Leder, Alexandra Kotcheff
Directors of photography: Hannah Leder, Alexandra Kotcheff
Production designers: Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder
Editor: Pinky Baggins
Music: Thomas Kotcheff
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