Fort Tilden: SXSW Review

Marielle Solan
Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott in "Fort Tilden"
An acidic comic strip about two infantile young women who stumble upon the unflattering truth about themselves.

A sunny day at the beach turns overcast for two self-deluding Brooklyn hipsters in Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers' tart comedy, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW.

Let’s be honest: No one desperately needs another comedy about desultory twentysomething white Brooklynites waiting for their grownup lives to begin. But Fort Tilden, the debut feature co-written and directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, showcases a satirical voice so dyspeptic it’s almost endearing, never letting the abrasive lead characters -- or anyone else for that matter -- off the hook for their self-absorbed entitlement. A mini-road trip that nudges its protagonists outside of their bubble, where the portrait of generational inertia ain’t pretty, this minor-key comedy of discomfort has a bittersweet bite.

The film owes as much to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion as it does to Lena Dunham’s Girls, its characters mired in extended adolescence as they blunder toward the challenges of adult independence and responsibility. But there’s also a pleasing air of 1990s French comedies like Cedric Klapisch’s When the Cat’s Away wafting through Fort Tilden, with its steady pileup of delays and mishaps, its depiction of thorny individuals who don’t quite fit into their designated group, and its portrait of village life within a sprawling metropolis.

The plot driver, or perhaps more accurately, the meandering experience that prompts the central figures to consider their place in the world, is a day trip to the beach for Williamsburg roommates Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty). Their sense of superiority to their peers is swiftly conveyed during an opening rooftop party. While twin-sister vocalists (Phoebe and Claire Tyers) perform earnestly drippy acoustic ditties, Harper and Allie exchange snarky texts, beamed onscreen.

Unlike the perceived losers and wannabes that surround them, these bored antiheroines are convinced they have the reins of their destinies in hand, their bond fortified by Elliott and McNulty’s relaxed chemistry. Harper feels sure that she’s only one big idea and another handout from Daddy away from taking the art world by storm, while Allie is heading for Liberia with the Peace Corps for two years before studying law or acupuncture or something. The shallowness of these half-baked growth plans is steadily exposed as they trek to the Rockaways beach that supplies the film’s title, intending to rendezvous with two guys from the party, Russ (Jeffrey Scaperotta) and Sam (Griffin Newman).

While the supremely selfish Harper’s primary motivation is sex with Russ, Allie, who might possibly retain a shred of humanity, seems to tag along more from fear of being left out. She blows off her Peace Corps placement meeting, prompting a running gag displaying texts from her impatient recruiting officer.

The inability of Harper and Allie to focus or to clear even the simplest hurdle is evident at every step, most notably as they stand by watching in disbelief through a discount clothing store window while one of their bikes is stolen. The inflated importance they attach to their first-world problems is heightened by a series of numbing encounters. They cross paths with Harper’s sexually fluid sometime boyfriend Benji (Peter Vack) and his bitchy gay posse; a pair of self-righteous Teach for America do-gooders (Desiree Nash, Becky Yamamoto); an exploitative car-service driver (Debargo Sanyal); two pre-college nymphs (Christine Spang, Hallie Haas); and a litter of abandoned kittens.

There’s a wicked strain of equal-opportunity awfulness running through characters across multiple age ranges here, whether it’s the smug Gen-X parents of Cobble Hill, the self-justifying millennials or the obscenely confident late teens, next to whom 25 suddenly seems ancient. But the writer-directors and their cast maintain a light touch that prevents even their cruelest observations from curdling. One of Fort Tilden’s strengths is that, even as Harper and Allie’s respect for themselves and one another deteriorates, and the summer skies give way to cloudy chill in the final section, Bliss and Rogers never deny their affection for the characters.

The filmmakers work well with their actors, allowing for cartoonish inflections in performances that are fundamentally naturalistic. Scenes with two or more people speaking without listening are especially amusing. Bliss edits with a gentle, breezy rhythm, punctuating the episodic action with wide shots that place the story’s lost wanderers in a landscape of shifting neighborhoods, shot in limpid HD by Brian Lannan.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Competition)

Cast: Bridey Elliott, Clare McNulty, Jeffrey Scaperrotta, Griffin Newman, Neil Casey, Peter Vack, Max Jenkins, Evan Hoyt Thompson, John Early, Desiree Nash, Becky Yamamoto, Christine Spang, Hallie Haas, Phoebe Tyers, Claire Tyers

Production company: Six Hands

Director-screenwriters: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers

Story: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Brian Lannan, Charles Rogers

Producers: Mollye Asher, Geoff Mansfield

Director of photography: Brian Lannan

Production designer: Katrina Whalen

Costume designer: Claire Harlam

Editor: Sarah-Violet Bliss

Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 97 minutes