‘Homeless’: Dances with Films Review

Courtesy of Wet Paint
Incisive and sensitive, despite lapses in dramatic tension

North Carolina locations lend a gritty edge to a debut feature.

Set adrift by family circumstances, the teenage protagonist of Homeless tries to find his footing on a slippery slope. Director Clay Riley Hassler’s compassion for his characters is evident, and his microbudgeted debut feature, shot partly in a homeless shelter among its residents, builds a naturalistic portrait of society’s lowest economic rungs. The storytelling is commendably unforced, but like its central figure, it sometimes feels enervated. A more finely honed friction would have upped the dramatic stakes and the narrative momentum, even as the lived-in atmosphere speaks volumes. The film received the Grand Jury Award at the 2015 edition of the Los Angeles festival Dances with Films.

With a cast of unknown actors and nonprofessionals, Hassler, who also handled cinematographer duties, creates a vivid sense of drastically restricted options for a boy with no familial support or financial resources. First-time actor Michael McDowell plays Gosh — “Josh with a ‘G’,” as he’s gotten used to explaining — who lands on the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C., after the death of his destitute grandmother. With visions of better times ahead, and reminders on his iPod of his happier days playing electric guitar in a band, he checks into a shelter to await the release from prison of his repeat-offender father, well played by J.W. Burriss.

McDowell’s underplaying suggests a stunned pain beneath the impassive surface. Gosh faces the inevitable catch-22 of needing a job so that he can rent an apartment and needing a permanent address in order to apply for a job. Passing listless hours in a mall, he receives a huge helping hand from food-court employee Tina (a very good Julie Dunagan), a single mom who gets him a job and offers him her couch. Her 12-year-old son (Parker Townsend), longing for a father, sees something of a rebel role model in the pierced and bleached-blond Gosh.

The screenplay by Hassler and Anna Fields quietly emphasizes how crucial the kindness of strangers can be and at the same time remains keenly alert to the dark undertow of economic desperation. Through no fault of their own, coworkers Tina and Gosh become competitors for the same low-wage hours. Allegiances don’t just shift — they evaporate, in devastating fashion.

The film’s most compelling character is an older shelter resident (Lance Megginson) who knows his way around the piano keyboard, and whose offers of friendship persist even after Gosh spurns the gracious gestures. Hassler wisely refuses to sentimentalize their tentative connection. But it’s hard not to wish for more of this unnamed character in the film.

That’s especially so when a scene of Gosh bowling with a new friend (Hosanna Gourley), clearly meant as an antidote to the sullen bleakness that has enveloped Gosh, is extended to the repetitious breaking point — not unlike the film’s stretches of overused piano score.

Still, though the movie goes slack from time to time, its well-observed moments can be astounding in the understated and double-edged way they cut to the core — as when, after sharing his modest hopes for the future, Gosh’s imprisoned father tells the homeless young man, “It’s good to have family, isn’t it?”

Production company: Wet Paint
Cast: Michael McDowell, Lance Megginson, Julie Dunagan, Hosanna Gourley, Parker Townsend, J.W. Burriss, Michael Francis Paolucci
Director: Clay Riley Hassler
Screenwriters: Anna Fields, Clay Riley Hassler
Producer: Tif Hassler
Director of photography: Clay Riley Hassler
Production/costume designer: Jillian Anzalone
Editors: Clay Riley Hassler, Sam Smartt, Joshua Beasley
Composer: Carlin Salmon

No rating, 92 minutes