'Rainbow Time': SXSW Review

Rainbow Time - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW

Rainbow Time - H 2016

A provocative but weirdly sensitive and endearing dramedy.

Linas Phillips reteams with 'Manson Family Vacation' co-star Jay Duplass for the story of a developmentally challenged troublemaker.

It's been six years since Linas Phillips directed his fiction debut, an improvised road film called Bass Ackwards. The surprising degree to which that movie surpassed other introspective DIY on-the-road pics is echoed in his sophomore effort Rainbow Time, where the filmmaker/actor portrays a developmentally challenged character with none of the mawkishness or actorly excess seen in so many similar films. Unassuming but warm and thoroughly involving, the pic represents growth on several fronts for Phillips, who in between directing efforts has staked out an eccentric acting turf in Manson Family Vacation and elsewhere. Having the Duplass brothers behind Rainbow Time as executive producers will not hurt its chances of connecting with film buffs beyond the fest circuit.

Phillips's Shawn, nicknamed "Shonzi" for his love of Arthur Fonzarelli, is the movie's fulcrum but not its protagonist: That would be Todd (Timm Sharp), Shonzi's brother, who has just decided to introduce his girlfriend of six months, Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey), to his family. He's anxious, and for good reason: A middle-aged virgin who spends most of his time with his widower father (Tobin Bell), Shonzi has a hard time not saying things that are sexually inappropriate. Or prying in ways that could get him in trouble, as when he lurks outside the couple's bedroom and films them without Lindsay's knowledge.

The complication here is that Todd knows of Shonzi's peeping-tom ways, which dovetail with his own consenting-adults fetishes. Todd isn't eager to share any of this with Lindsay, being confident she'll disapprove, but Shonzi keeps dropping hints, testing his loving brother's patience.

Lynskey gives a winning performance here as a New Agey peacemaker straining to be tolerant of Shonzi's quirks and perhaps too optimistic about the prospects of making him more sensitive. She sticks up for him when Todd's temper kicks in, and makes him part of a feminist video project about catcalling, hoping he'll come to identify with women he sees as sex objects.

But as played by Phillips, Shonzi is more self-aware than Lindsay realizes. He's quick with a disarming "I'm kidding, bro," when he accidentally crosses a conversational line, and knows he can get the upper hand in an argument by sarcastically referring to himself as "slow." Phillips reports that he worked with special-needs kids for years, and that during this film's gestation he played Shonzi in public, approaching unwitting strangers to see how long they'd endure his discomfiting conversation. That sentence contains enough fodder for pro/con discussions of ethics as Rainbow Time eventually does — the more Todd admits to Lindsay about his sexual needs and his openness about them with Shonzi, the more difficult it is to judge him. Sharp's pained ambivalence and concern about how his news will go over makes it hard not to root for him.

The script's most conventional plot point finds Shonzi getting in a mess with the law; awkwardly, the film comes close to suggesting that he's doing the right thing by spying on two teens as they make out. But the action stops short of showstopping melodrama, getting just bad enough to trigger the fraternal rupture that was coming all along. In the aftermath, the movie manages to successfully take all three leads' sides as it waits to see who will apologize first, to whom, and how successfully.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production company: Duplass Brothers Productions
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Linas Phillips, Timm Sharp, Tobin Bell, Lauren Weedman, Artemis Pebdani, Jay Duplass, Reagan Yates, Austin Fryberger
Director-screenwriter: Linas Phillips
Producers: Ian Michaels, Linas Phillips
Executive producers: Mel Eslyn, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Director of photography: Nathan M. Miller
Production designer: Tom Obed
Costume designer: Lindsay Monahan
Editors: Libby Cuenin, Nathan Whiteside
Composer: Heather McIntosh
Casting director: Amey Rene
Sales: ICM Partners, Submarine Entertainment

Not rated, 92 minutes