'Don't Be a Dick About It': Film Review | IDFA 2018

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
O brother, why art thou?

U.S. director Ben Mullinkosson's debut mid-lengther won the keenly contested audience award at the long-running documentary extravaganza in Amsterdam.

Debut director Ben Mullinkosson very much keeps it in the family with the arrestingly titled Don't Be a Dick About It, a wryly sympathetic portrait of two bickering teenage brothers who happen to be his own cousins. A truly independent production shot in the discreetly affluent Washington, D.C., suburb Chevy Chase, this is an affable, intimate and unassuming little picture clocking in at just 69 minutes.

Despite the film's miniature scale, it exerted sufficient charm to defeat all competition — 193 rivals, most of them dealing with much "weightier" topics — to top the audience-prize vote when world-premiering at Amsterdam's IDFA. The €5000 ($5,688) award alone should ensure plentiful further festival bookings both Stateside and further afield, while the brief running time will doubtless yield plentiful small-screen opportunities.

And although there's much to be said for experiencing this amusing chronicle of sibling affection, boisterous feuding and blush-inducing awkwardness with a public crowd, Don't Be a Dick About It — which depends heavily on the appeal of its chalk/cheese protagonists — certainly won't lose much if seen on home formats. Indeed, one of the doc's running leitmotifs involves a TV phenom: CBS' long-running Survivor. The program is the abiding obsession of Peter Mullins, the more hyperactive, extrovert and immature of the two brothers — it's revealed in the closing minutes that he has epilepsy and autism — who conducts what seem to be daily rituals inspired by the show.

"The tribe has spoken!" Peter portentously intones on myriad occasions throughout the film, mock-banishing various relatives and friends who have somehow incurred his displeasure. These Survivor nods — complete with music and audio-effects pilfered from the program's soundtrack — quickly become somewhat repetitive, with director Mullinkosson blurring the line between depicting Peter's enthusiasm and sharing it.

The filmmaker is on safer ground when exploring the tricky relationship between Peter and the more grounded Matthew, a more "regular" kind of high-schooler who generally regards his energetic, socially maladroit brother's antics with a mixture of impatience, bewilderment and sheer embarrassment. The rest of the family, including the duo's genially tolerant, low-profile parents and their sister Kerry (to whom the title's appeal is actually addressed), are more peripheral, apart from when their mother accompanies Matthew to local parks in attempts to overcome his severe dog-phobia.

Edited by Bobby Moser, the doc mainly observes Peter and Matthew over the course of a long summer vacation (Matthew heads off to some kind of college in the latter stages), in what's routinely listed as one of the country's wealthiest enclaves. At one point, a TV news broadcast is heard reporting on a gun-crime incident; otherwise very little of the "real world" seems to impinge on these pleasantly low-key episodes of suburban aimlessness, playing out in a place where furry critters scamper past BMWs on well-tended driveways.

Mullinkosson avoids the fly-on-the-wall approach; his camera is routinely acknowledged by his subjects, and we often hear comments from the director or glimpse him in mirrors. Don't Be a Dick About It is in this way breezily open about the circumstances of its own production, landing somewhere between observational documentary and larkish home-movie. The soundtrack burnishes the lo-fi indie feel, with acoustic-guitar numbers and wistful songs chiming with the slightly hazy pastel tones of the visual palette.

The result is a pleasant, if in the end slightly inconsequential picture, perhaps primarily of interest to those currently experiencing Mullins-style sibling frictions and joys, those who have fresh memories of the same and ethnographers/anthropologists keen to see how some of the world's most economically fortunate minors currently make the ever-rocky transition from youth to adulthood.

Production company: The Whitelist Collective
Director-screenwriter-producer-cinematographer: Ben Mullinkosson
Executive producers: Jerad Anderson, Jack Mullinkosson
Editor: Bobby Moser
Composers: Trevor Doherty, Kauai Moliterno, Aman Singh, Dennis Olanrewaju Broderick II, Scott Murrow Huss, David Perlick-Molinari
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Mid-length Competition)
Sales: Whitelist, Los Angeles

69 minutes