Passenger Side -- Film Review

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The notion of the writer as life's observer rather than participant is a common movie trope. "Passenger Side," a low-key comedy drama that had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, begins with that familiar proposition but takes it beyond the usual bromides.

The film is a road trip through Southern California, sparked by the reluctant bond between two brothers in their mid-30s as they set off on a vague mission. The specifics behind their trek gradually reveal themselves with unexpected poignancy, and the story's final twist could lure fest and art house audiences back for a second look.

Writer-director Matthew Bissonnette, a transplanted Canadian, brings a fresh perspective to the horizontal stretch of Los Angeles and environs, presenting them as usually experienced -- through a windshield. His well-etched characters also are Canadians who have moved south.

Writer Michael (Adam Scott) is not pleased to be awakened early one morning by the phone's relentless rings (he's resistant to such conveniences as cell phones, answering machines and CD players). Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), the brother he rarely sees, is having car trouble and needs a ride around town for reasons he doesn't at first explain. Given Tobey's history of drug problems, Michael is suspicious. But clean-and-sober Tobey divulges that he's chasing information about the whereabouts of his ex-girlfriend Theresa. Convinced that she's the love of his life, he's determined to find her and make a new start.

Tobey and Michael, outsiders in different ways, communicate via sardonic humor and deadpan barbs. As they crisscross from Echo Park to the Hollywood Hills to Glendale and Long Beach, their sharp banter moves from sibling crossfire to philosophical musings and back again. Without resorting to laborious backstory or melodrama, Bissonnette and his talented actors convey just enough of the characters' upbringing and family dynamics. The two leads are not physically like brothers, but they bring a shared sense of aggrieved alertness to their roles. Scott's Michael is more ready than he realizes to step outside his writerly seclusion, and Bissonnette's Tobey has the soulfulness and unreliability of a character Steve Buscemi might play.

The director trusts a lot of his story to landscape and language, but the odyssey also involves a series of encounters, beginning with the brief and very funny appearance of a self-appointed neighborhood watchdog (film publicist Mickey Cottrell). The ground's-eye view of the unglamorous city includes a close encounter with a tranny hooker (Vitta Quinn) and a quick stop at a porn shoot in the Valley (Gale Harold plays the multitasking "actor"). Some of the characters -- a drunken pedestrian, a homeless dog -- feel too obviously manufactured, and the trip often feels disjointed. And given the realities of Los Angeles traffic, the daylong journey, which includes an eventful expedition to Joshua Tree and back, would be impossible within the story's time frame.

Despite these lapses, the seemingly random roaming in "Passenger Side" turns out to have a well-plotted trajectory, and among gibes about the sins of the writer, fear of the future and stumbles in the past, the film goes to the heart of the matter in surprising ways.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: A Corey Marr Prods.
Cast: Adam Scott, Joel Bissonnette, Robin Tunney, Gale Harold, Penelope Allen, Vitta Quinn, Mickey Cottrell
Director/screenwriter: Matthew Bissonnette
Executive producers: Adam Scott, Corey Marr, Matthew Bissonnette
Producer: Corey Marr
Director of photography: Jonathon Cliff
Music consultant: Mac McCaughan
Costume designer: Melissa Clemens
Editor: Matthew Hannam
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes