'Giants Being Lonely': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Vivid style, blurry storytelling.

Grear Patterson's writing-directing debut is a Southern coming-of-age drama revolving around a pair of small-town high school baseball players.

A formally assured, dramatically wobbly coming-of-ager about golden-limbed teens playing ball, sexing it up and generally having lots of feelings, Giants Being Lonely marks a head-scratching debut from New York mixed media artist Grear Patterson.

The visuals in this drama — set in an unspecified Southern locale of deep green forests, stately white houses and dingy convenience stores — are confident, sometimes ravishing, if not terribly original (think Terrence Malick plus Gus Van Sant, divided by the Dardenne brothers and multiplied by the majority of young-ish American regional-indie directors selected at top festivals). Even when it grows too enamored of its own lyrical driftiness, there’s undeniable skill in Patterson’s use of space, color and sound. The movie might have worked as a mood piece; at times it almost does.

But as mood pieces go, Giants Being Lonely feels busy with plot and theme — the big game, the all-important prom, an illicit affair, abuse, alcoholism, murder — and the storytelling is frustratingly fuzzy. It’s never quite clear what, exactly, Patterson is getting at, or why, and the things that do come through carry a distinct whiff of the over-familiar. (Given his tale of two small-town high school baseball players vying for the same girl, one of whom ends up in bed with the coach’s wife, it’s fair to assume Patterson is a fan of Peter Bogdanovich’s incomparable The Last Picture Show.) Some stilted writing and acting further contribute to an air of studied inscrutability that grows tiresome even over the course of a compact 80 minutes.

Sweet-natured, open-faced Bobby (Jack Irving) is a local hero thanks to his status as his school team’s star pitcher. Life off the field is less glorious: He lives in a tiny, ramshackle house with a hard-boozing father who spends his days on the couch sleeping off hangovers. Bobby’s less gifted teammate Adam (Ben Irving), the son of their brutish coach (a convincing Gabe Fazio), has a crush on Caroline (Lily Gavin), who appears to like both boys. Caroline is rich, Bobby poor and Adam somewhere in between, though the film’s handling of class is as casual as its approach to character development.

It takes a little while to figure out who’s who, partly because the male leads look so much alike. (The two are real-life brothers, their resemblance lending the film a potentially intriguing doppelganger-story subtext that’s never explored.) By the time we understand which young man is which, Bobby is sleeping with Adam’s mom (Coach’s wife), a melancholy, breathy-voiced blonde referred to as Mrs. S. (Amalia Culp). The movie’s final third focuses on their secret relationship — as well as on Coach’s increasingly volatile behavior — in a noirish tightening of narrative screws that never quite works.

Produced by Olmo Schnabel, son of filmmaker Julian Schnabel (At Eternity’s Gate), Giants Being Lonely is awash in beauty — namely, the lush landscapes and sweat-glistened bodies of the young cast, many of whom could pass for American Apparel models. These dreamy images envelop you, even as the film otherwise seems intent on keeping you at arm’s length.

At times, Patterson and DP Hunter Zimny veer into an arty prettiness that can feel empty and derivative; there are a few too many doleful facial close-ups and shots of leaves fluttering in the breeze as a chorus of crickets croon in the background. But the writer-director also proves capable of breaking the occasional monotony of all that loveliness with sights and scenes that jolt you: the vibrant yellow of the boys’ baseball uniforms popping against a starless black sky; a game during which Bobby becomes ill as he pitches, the disorienting sound design and camera movement creating an almost surreal tension. It’s no coincidence that some of the most effective moments indeed revolve around the baseball team, as it’s one of the few elements that tether the film to concrete human experience.

Both Irvings are appealing — Jack, with his wisp of a voice and guile-free gaze, is an especially tender presence — though neither is given much to do. Caroline is a total cipher, her yearnings barely seeming to interest the filmmaker; Gavin’s stiff line readings don’t help. Giants Being Lonely hints at the loneliness of these young people, walled off from both their peers and the disappointing adults in their lives by an inability to articulate — or even comprehend — their own longings. But the movie is oddly uncurious about its characters, never taking the time to really understand them, to dig beneath all the attractive surfaces and fraught silences.

One notable detail is a conspicuous absence of cell phones. The decade-spanning song selections — from a too-brief (always too brief) snippet of Bronski Beat’s "Smalltown Boy" to a burst of contemporary hip-hop — and geographical vagueness add to the sense of a story adrift in time. The intention, presumably, was to lend the material an eternal quality, but it ultimately just feels symptomatic of the film’s reluctance to commit to anything beyond its own atmospheric allure.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Writer-director: Grear Patterson

Producer: Olmo Schnabel

Cast: Jack Irving, Ben Irving, Lily Gavin, Amalia Culp, Gabe Fazio

Executive producers: Grear Patterson, Olmo Schnabel, Dan T. Reiner, Adam Lindemann, Nick Burch, Henry Burch, Thorvald Spartan Daggenhurst, George Merck, Andres Santo Domingo, Shkumbin Jakupi, Theo Niarchos, Luka Sabbat, Patrick Finnegan, Alvaro Odriozola

Director of photography: Hunter Zimny

Production designer: Audrey Turner

Editor: Ismael de Diego

Editor/Music supervisor: Olmo Schnabel

Original score: Ben Morsberger

Casting: Eleonore Hendricks

81 minutes