‘No Alternative’: Film Review
Writer-director William Dickerson's very personal family drama, set during the '90s grunge era, goes to some unconvincingly squeamish places.
It's the 1990s in upstate New York. Kurt Cobain recently committed suicide and high school senior Thomas Harrison (Conor Proft) wants to follow in the Nirvana frontman's footsteps by forming a grunge band. His creative endeavor somewhat relieves him of the impending pressures of college, and also steels him against some very potent family drama. Thomas' dad, William (Harry Hamlin), is a judge who has been targeted by several members of the community after one of his decisions (granting a volatile defendant bail) resulted in a murder. And Thomas' teenage sister, Bridget (Michaela Cavazos), who has been on psychotherapeutic drugs since she was 8, is a Prozac Nation poster child very close to going off the rails.
Though No Alternative, which is premiering June 7 at the Dances With Film festival in Los Angeles, initially seems to be Thomas' story, Bridget slowly assumes a narratively prominent position. It turns out she has a musical talent all her own and, in the film's funniest and most successful scenes, she performs in the local coffeehouse as a self-consciously confrontational hip-hopper named Bri Da B. Much like the art forms to which the two siblings have dedicated themselves (grunge in the descent, gangsta rap in the ascent), Thomas and Bridget are on rough-and-tumble paths that could just as easily lead to triumph as tragedy.
The basics of this tale feel very lived in, so it's no surprise to discover that writer-director William Dickerson adapted No Alternative from his 2012 novel, which was a fictionalized paean to his grunge band years, as well as a tribute to his sister, Briana (who also performed as a rapper named Bri Da Ba), and her struggles with prescription drug addiction and mental illness. Two years after the book was published, Briana died of an overdose that might very well have been intentional, so Dickerson, as he explains on the film's IndieGoGo page, conceived the adaptation as a way "to destigmatize the struggles of people who suffer [from mental illness]." Good intentions and all. Yet the movie takes on some quite queasy complications because of the large degree to which the filmmaker prizes issue-based agitprop over intuitive storytelling.
In short, Dickerson's magnanimous themes about mental illness come first and the drama he concocts barely supports them. There are many coming-of-age story perennials, such as a pair of love interests — a younger, not-so-virginal-as-she-seems girlfriend (Chloe Levine) for Thomas and an older, Sarah Lawrence-attending beau (Logan Georges) for Bridget — who provoke their partners in varying ways, and a climactic contest (here a low-rent battle of the bands) meant to bestow some measure of cathartic approbation on those involved.
Proft and Cavazos do their best with hollow characters that mainly exist to illustrate the point that mania and depression don't discriminate. Even someone seemingly well-adjusted, like Thomas, can be wallowing in a desolate abyss. But they never seem like anything other than one-dimensional constructs, something especially evident after the film takes a truly upsetting turn about three-quarters of the way in that feels like squeamish wish fulfillment on Dickerson's part. It's a semi-sacrificial gesture meant to honor and immortalize his sister. But in this trifling context, it comes off as shamelessly misguided and nauseating.
Production Companies: LeGrand Productions
Cast: Michaela Cavazos, Conor Proft, Chloe Levine, Kathryn Erbe, Harry Hamlin, Matthew Van Oss, Aria Shahghasemi, Eli Bridges, Logan Georges, Deema Aitken, Brendan Dooling
Director: William Dickerson
Writers: William Dickerson, Dwight Moody
Producer: Carrie LeGrand
Co-producers: Shalaina Castle, Liam McKiernan, Blake Barrie
Line producer: Anna Skrypka
Executive producers: Brud Fogarty, CJ Kirvan, James Andrew O'Connor, Troy Gregory
Director of photography: Robert Kraetsch
Production designer: Callen Golden
Costume designer: Nikia Nelson
Editor: Natasha Bedu
Original songs: Latterday Saints, Bri Da B
Original score: MJ Mynarski
Casting: Judy Bowman