'Relaxer': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Adam J. Minnick
An endurance test, onscreen and off.

Joel Potrykus offers another pasty Midwestern allegory, this one set entirely on a gamer's couch.

Sibling sadism turns absurdist in Joel Potrykus' Relaxer, in which a passive man-child endures baffling deprivation for no reason other than that his big brother dared him to. The follow-up to the Michigan filmmaker's The Alchemist Cookbook and Buzzard, both of which featured outcasts with trouble in mind, the claustrophobic, one-set film clearly invites metaphorical readings — but its allegories will play best to viewers who can stomach the idea of spending eternity on a couch playing Nintendo.

That's pretty much what Joshua Burge's Abbie does here, while his tiny world crumbles around him. We meet the shirtless dweeb in the middle of 1999, sitting on the sofa and drinking his way through a gallon of milk — brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) is pouring baby bottles full of the stuff and timing his consumption while Abbie plays a skateboarding video game. It's the latest in a series of infantile "challenges" the alpha brother has constructed, every one of which Abbie has failed, and the biggest question now is whether viewers will barf before he does.

In between allusions to the boys' long-gone father (who left town under the cloud of some kind of sexual scandal), the two bicker about the rules of these challenges and it becomes clear that Cam will never let Abbie off the couch: not to answer the door nor the call of nature, not to go to the fridge, not to scratch himself.

Before heading out the door to have unspecified cool-brother fun, Cam sets Abbie one last challenge: He is to maintain his spot on the couch until he can beat level 256 of Pac-Man. Little does Abbie know that Cam will not be returning for several months, long after the Y2K bug does whatever damage it has in store.

Like a Juggalo confronting a Beckett or Bunuel scenario, Abbie phones up friends for help (does Chuck E. Cheese deliver, he wonders?) but is essentially on his own in a godless universe. He wallows in filth, even staying put when the apartment is bombed with insecticide; and as we silently condemn him for not breaking his brother's idiotic rules, some viewers will wonder if they should free themselves from their own unspoken agreement to sit through a movie's end.

Especially in light of a short parable Cam tells early on about work and retirement, it's pretty obvious that Abbie's voluntary imprisonment is meant to reflect an American underclass that can't imagine any kind of life beyond our late-capitalist constraints. The presumed message — get off the couch and live for yourselves, young Americans! — might be a little more persuasive if our onscreen stand-in were not so revolting. No, it's probably true that a citizen of this nation in 2017 doesn't deserve to be represented onscreen by an action hero, even a dimwitted Neo who has his eyes opened for him. Maybe, on the whole, we're as slackjawed as Abbie. Even so, not many of us are going to sit still to watch the comparison play out.

Production companies: Sob Noisse Movies, Oscilloscope Laboratories
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Cast: Joshua Burge, David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Mahfuz Rahman, Madi Bachman, Adina Howard, Amari Cheatom, Jeen Na
Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Joel Potrykus
Producers: Ashley Young, Joel Potrykus
Executive producers: Daniel Berger, Aaron Katz
Director of photography: Adam J. Minnick
Production designer: Mike Saunders
Composer: Neon Indian
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Visions)

91 minutes