'The Plagiarists': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Not so counterfeit as it seems.

Peter Parlow's lo-fi indie (or is that "indie"?) drama explores themes of cribbing and copying while provocatively doing the same.

We've seen this before, in almost every particular. It's a cold winter day. A car breaks down on the side of the road. A mysterious stranger arrives to help the stranded passengers. The tale could branch off in any number of directions, though the two most likely, given how these film festival dime-a-dozeners often go, would be "unlikely friendship" or "bloody murder." It's therefore to the credit of director Peter Parlow and co-screenwriters James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir that their lo-fi indie The Plagiarists maintains a certain intrigue-laden obscurity throughout.

To start, is the older black man, Clip (Michael "Clip" Payne of Parliament-Funkadelic), friend or foe to the young white protagonists, Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and Tyler (Eamon Monaghan)? He's certainly more than welcoming, offering them food and shelter while they wait for their vehicle to be fixed. Yet there are several troubling signs — the mute boy, for example, who Clip might be babysitting, but maybe not? Or how about that dusty, creepy room full of videotapes and old camera equipment that Tyler, a commercial advertising cinematographer with auteur-filmmaker pretensions, stumbles across? Certainly his discovery lends some meta layers to the decision to shoot this modern-day millennial melodrama on outdated Betacam SP. (Hilariously hammering home the point, Tyler later expounds on the glories of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme '95 manifesto.) But is there more to it than that? Or is all as it inconsequentially appears?

The questions linger even as the story goes nowhere fast. It feels like anything could happen…yet not much does. Anna, Tyler and Clip while away the hours getting drunk on wine and hard liquor, often nearing the precipice of pissing each other off, but pulling back at the last moment. Very mumblecore, wouldn't you say? Even that, though, is too reductive a description, especially for a movie that resists genre classification even as it plays into certain narrative stereotypes and cliches.

It seems that Parlow, Wilkins and Schavoir want viewers to think they know what they're seeing. Then, once the audience is sufficiently lulled, the film will feint toward something much more disruptive and mysterious. When the characters' long, dark night culminates in Clip suddenly declaiming an achingly beautiful, and apparently off-the-cuff, poetic monologue, it stops both Anna (a struggling writer longing for inspiration) and the movie in their tracks. Have all the typical "indie film" trappings been in service to this blindsiding moment of transcendence?

As befits this strange slip of a motion picture, the answer is at once "yes," "no" and "maybe?" From here, The Plagiarists jumps ahead six months to summer, as Anna and Tyler pay a visit to their friend Allison (Emily Davis) and belatedly discover "Clip" isn't everything he seems. His deception, however, is pretty trivial. No spoilers beyond saying it involves a poached passage from a recent sprawling literary best-seller that also took the profoundly mundane and the mundanely profound as its subjects.

It's a fine line that Parlow and his collaborators are walking — bending to expectations (of film-fest fare, especially) while simultaneously upending same. And all of this done with so light a touch that it's easy to walk away from The Plagiarists thinking nothing of much significance was accomplished. The film improves upon reflection, raising, as it does, some knotty questions about originality in art and in life, as well as provocatively positing that even a copy of a copy of a copy has the potential to move hearts and minds.

Production company: Automatic Moving Co.
Cast: Michael "Clip" Payne, Lucy Kaminsky, Eamon Monaghan, Emily Davis
Director: Peter Parlow
Screenwriters: James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Robin Schavoir
Producers: Paul Dallas, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Automatic Moving Co, Robin Schavoir
Cinematography: James N. Kienitz Wilkins
Music: Pond5
Sound design: Josh Allen
Sound: Eugene Wasserman
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)

76 minutes