'Poor Boy': Tribeca Review

POOR BOY - H 2016
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An out-there debut offering more moody panache than storytelling ambition.

Two lawless brothers have an inventively stupid moneymaking scheme.

Synopses bounce off Poor Boy like gravel off a speeding pickup truck, powerless to explain what this cosmically grungy movie might be about. An absent father's attempt to imprint values on his sons? Two-bit crime in the desert? A lunkheaded attempt to marry into money? None of those suffice to describe Robert Scott Wildes' unruly first film, a challenging but not totally inaccessible work that will feel for many like a shaggy dog tale. Arthouse prospects will depend entirely on it finding tastemaking champions on the fest circuit, a prospect made slightly easier by the presence of familiar names in the cast.

Michael Shannon is the largest of those names, playing a small but spiritually important role. We meet him in the opening scene, a bedraggled rodeo clown in face makeup, and via a sonorous, sometimes philosophical voiceover we infer that he's the missing father of the movie's two actual stars: Lou Taylor Pucci and Dov Tiefenbach's Romeo and Samson Griggs, penny-ante outlaws who scrape by in this ugly little town.

Given to petty theft from people they know and to schemes like the fixing of women's volleyball games — who knew there was money to be made there? — the boys manage to stay alive without doing anything weird like getting a job. But when Samson's, er, landlady says she's going to have to sell the up-on-blocks houseboat he lives in, they need to pull some money together to buy it.

The "long play" scheme Romeo hatches is based on weirdly faulty assumptions about Native American culture that can be boiled down to his assertion, "Good Lord, Indians are so f—ing rich." Believing that the husband-to-be of any American Indian woman is given a large casino-funded dowry by the bride's father, Romeo decides all Samson has to do is find a suitable woman online and impregnate her to force a wedding.

That much, viewers can follow. Further details of the boys' misadventures can get lost, in scenes where one isn't sure if the dialogue is unintelligible because it's intentionally hidden in the sound mix or because the brothers are employing their own inscrutable lingo. While they're doing whatever they're doing, though, they're being hunted: A weathered woman named Deb (Dale Dickey) is poking around town, trying to find someone who can tell her where they live.

The movie's action is more disjointed than this condensation suggests, episodes strung together loosely and sometimes interrupted by cryptic montage/voiceover interludes that may veer out into the stars or offer head-on wordless encounters with characters we haven't met. We're in a different world here, one in which whatever beat-of-your-own-drummer ethos Daddy tried to communicate to his boys clearly stuck. Samson prays to the meat he's grilling for dinner, cooing "I love you, baby rabbit"; Romeo seemingly has access to an alternate-universe, dial-up "internets."

Amid all the strangeness, the picture's most compelling ingredient is its soundtrack, which pairs an original score with pieces by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke and a reconfigured modern-classical composition by John Matthias and Nick Ryan. One scene will match shoplifting with panicked jazz; one pulses with Can-like beats; one will glide through a skating rink to something like ELO. Disparate as its sounds are, they complete the movie's distorted reality, whose workings we understand only a little better than these foolish free spirits do.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production company: Them Gold Wolves
Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Dov Tiefenbach, Michael Shannon, Dale Dickey, Pat Healy, Amy Ferguson, Justin Chatwin
Director: Robert Scott Wildes
Screenwriters: Robert Scott Wildes, Logan Antill
Producers: Kristin Mann, Robert Scott Wildes
Executive producers: James McLachlan, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Anton Gurevich, Jim & Sally Rothwell, Steven Ilous, Lou Taylor Pucci, Owen Drake
of photography: Andrew Wheeler
Production designer: Anne Goelz
Costume designer: Dakota Keller
Editor: Chris Walldorf
Composers: Chris Walldorf, Brent Bagwell
Casting director: Liz Winter
Sales: Hailey Wierengo, UTA

Not rated, 104 minutes