Pollywogs: Film Review

Pollywogs Film Still - H 2013

Pollywogs Film Still - H 2013

This is one family reunion you won't need to attend.

The semi-improvised film about a family reunion in Minnesota has its world premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival.

Echoes of several earlier -- and better -- movies can be heard throughout Pollywogs, which had its world premiere at L.A. Film Fest over the weekend. After a sour breakup with a girlfriend in New York, Dylan (played by the film’s writer and co-director, Karl Jacob) returns to Minnesota for a family reunion, where he re-connects with a childhood girlfriend in the hope of rekindling some romantic sparks. In addition to the many movies made about family weddings and reunions (such as Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married), the film also recalls Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, particularly in its emphasis on long dialogue scenes between the two lovers. Unfortunately, this rehash doesn’t match its many predecessors and seems unlikely to snare major distribution. An appealing cast and attractive northern Minnesota settings can’t overcome a script that never really kicks into gear.

Jacob has cited films by John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh as some of his other models, and reactions to Pollywogs might well depend on how viewers respond to improvisational filmmaking. It’s worth pointing out that while Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy contributed to the scripts of Before Sunset and Before Midnight, just as the actors here fleshed out their roles, Linklater’s films were carefully written before filming began. They still might have their occasional self-indulgent moments, but those films are far more rigorous than the loosely structured Pollywogs

Most of the conversations in the film take place between Dylan, his ex-girlfriend Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil), and his cousins Bo and Julie (Larry Mitchell and Jennifer Prediger), whose marital problems are meant to provide a counterpoint to the romantic turmoil experienced by the main couple. Unfortunately, we never learn very revealing secrets about any of these characters. Bo talks at one point about his envy of Dylan for breaking away from their childhood home, but we don’t gain much insight into Dylan’s New York lifestyle or the marital ennui that afflicts Bo and Julie. And although members of Jacob’s family appear as themselves in a big family dinner scene, they don’t register very vividly either. Delpy’s 2011 film Le Skylab (which still has no U.S. distribution) also incorporated members of her own family in a picture about a family reunion but achieved far wittier and more telling character details.

There is one candid, convincingly awkward sex scene between Dylan and Sarah in a sauna, but even there, the film fails to clarify what goes wrong in their attempt to rekindle their intimacy. Are they idealizing a childhood flirtation that was never very substantial, or have they both changed too much to re-connect meaningfully? We never learn enough about either of them to answer that question. 

The movie benefits from the lovely cinematography by Benjamin Kasulke, which does justice to the sylvan Minnesota landscapes. Arone Dyer’s haunting musical score is another asset. Jacob has an appealing, low-key masculine presence, and the other three actors perform nimbly even if their roles seem much too vacuous. I look forward to seeing them again in a more sharply written movie.

Venue:  Los Angeles Film Festival

Cast:  Karl Jacob, Larry Mitchell, Jennifer Prediger, Kate Lyn Sheil

Directors:  Karl Jacob, T. Arthur Cottam

Screenwriter-producer:  Karl Jacob

Executive producers:  Tracy Utley, Vinny Petrosini

Director of photography:  Benjamin Kasulke

Music:  Arone Dyer

Editor:  Dustin Guy Defa

No rating, 76 minutes