'Cronies': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A promising but dramatically undernourished feature-length debut

This low-budget, black-and-white debut, executive produced by Spike Lee, follows three young men on a hot, marijuana-laced Midwestern summer day.

There’s a current of palpable emotion coursing beneath the surface of Cronies, a low-budget, black-and-white indie that explores the shifting affinities and alliances among three young men on a lazy summer day in St. Louis. Writer-director Michael J. Larnell, in his feature-length debut, only occasionally succeeds in tapping that emotion — the film ends up feeling much like a missed opportunity — but it’s enough to make you optimistic about his future.

Premiering in Sundance’s popular NEXT section, Cronies is likely to get an attention boost from the name of its executive producer: none other than Spike Lee, who was one of Larnell’s professors at NYU’s graduate film program and awarded him a grant to make the movie.

Cronies turns on the fraying bond between a pair of 20-something African-American childhood friends: bespectacled, good-natured Louis (George Sample III), who has a live-in girlfriend and young daughter, and generally seems to be trying to embrace his responsibilities; and brash, gold-grilled Jack (Zurich Buckner), who appears to split his time between weed and women.

The catalyst for much tension arrives in the smiling, square-jawed form of Andrew (Brian Kowalski), Louis’ white co-worker and new friend, who sizes up Jack with thinly veiled disdain — and barely bats an eye at Jack’s own hostility toward him. In one of the film’s more nuanced touches, Andrew is not some squeaky-clean alternative to Jack; he, too, dabbles in drugs, ogles and objectifies women, and doesn’t really have anywhere important to be. Andrew’s whiteness adds a layer of unsettling and potentially rich subtext — is his aimlessness more socially acceptable and less threatening than Jack’s, even to Louis? — that goes largely unmined.

Cronies follows Louis, Jack and Andrew as they set out for a day of smoking and fishing, though there’s also a pit stop at a drug dealer’s house, a detour at a dance party, and some distracting business involving a gun and a stolen car.

Notably, the story is framed as a documentary, with the director asking questions offscreen and the characters facing the camera to grin and fumble their way through answers. Larnell’s mentor used a similar technique in his own striking debut, 1988’s She’s Gotta Have It, but in that case there was a purpose: to probe the mysteries and meanings behind the protagonist’s life choices.

Here, the interviewing plays like a gimmick, yielding explicit explanations of sentiments more poignantly and persuasively evoked by the silences, stares and verbal jabs that ricochet back and forth between Louis and Jack over the course of the day. If Larnell’s intention was to examine the difficulties men have expressing their (platonic) love for one another, as well as the passive, and less passive, aggressions they unleash when hurt, then the talky framework is especially misguided — a case of showing shoved aside by telling.

The even more universal subject here, of course, is how close friendships can erode over time as people and priorities change. It’s the theme Kelly Reichardt tackled in her quietly devastating Old Joy with a sensitivity and subtlety that Larnell, for the moment, can't approach.

None of the three main characters come alive as particularly rich or compelling either in their machismo-fueled banter or their confessional moments, and the dynamics of jealousy and affection between them register mostly as half-baked.

Larnell also leans too hard on one significant plot point — a traumatic past event meant to account for both the loyalty and resentment between Louis and Jack — that feels incongruously movie-ish.

Despite the film's flaws and missteps, there’s a low-key charm and sincerity at play in Cronies, as well as a sly recognition of fragile male egos and the way bravado can mask sexual anxiety. When Andrew, egged on by Jack, tries to pick up a pair of young women, the results are pungently funny; Jack, for his part, frequently boasts of his prowess, but his few attempts at seduction fall disastrously flat.

Among the movie’s other modest strengths are DP Federico M. Cesca’s handsome cinematography and the vivid sense of Midwestern summer Larnell conjures, the languorously sunbaked suburban streets alive with the constant buzz of cicadas.

Some of his camera work is less thought-out. Larnell often relies on searching close-ups as if hoping to find infinitesimal emotional shifts that his novice performers aren’t able to convey. Other stylistic flourishes, such as the use of slow-mo and a hum of heightened background noise during a scene in which Louis shops for a birthday present for his daughter, serve no discernible purpose.

Production company: circa1978productions
Cast: George Sample III, Zurich Buckner, Brian Kowalski, Landra Taylor, Samiyah Womack
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Michael J. Larnell
Executive producer: Spike Lee
Director of photography: Federico M. Cesca
Music supervisor/casting director: Albert A. Smith

No rating, 85 minutes