Sawdust City: Film Review

Shoestring-budgeted tale of bar-crawling brothers is one of the year's best American independents.

Wisconsin's multi-hyphenate David Nordstrom follows two semi-estranged brothers as they hit the watering holes of a Midwestern city one snowy Thanksgiving.

BRADFORD, England —Admirers of American independent cinema will be raising their glasses to Wisconsin's David Nordstrom, as his beer-soaked directorial debut Sawdust City, which the Los Angeles-based CalArts graduate also wrote, edited and stars in, quietly but firmly announces the arrival of a highly promising new voice. Following two semi-estranged brothers as they hit the watering holes of a Midwestern city one snowy Thanksgiving, this extremely well observed, unpretentious, atmospheric study of dysfunctional family relations has an intoxicating flavor of authenticity. Nordstrom confidently blends knockabout, laid-back humor with more serious interludes all the way to a moving, bittersweet finale of hard-earned emotion.

Having premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, Sawdust City is steadily making its way around the festival circuit. While undeniably small-scale, this deft charmer is of sufficient distinction to warrant limited theatrical exposure domestically and perhaps even in overseas territories receptive to such fare.

Eau Claire, Wisconsin — pop.60,000 — was a booming, wealthy lumber town a century ago but now suffers tough economic times. High-end carpenter Bob (Nordstrom) has been out of work for several months, and with their first child on the way he and his wife Carley (Becca Barr) have had to turn to her mother for financial help.

Bob's worries and discontents come to the surface after his younger brother Pete (Carl McLaughlin) shows up unexpectedly on a brief furlough from Navy training. Unmarried and unattached, Pete is keen to catch up with his seldom-seen dad, Charlie, so the brothers go off in search of their hard-drinking parent around his regular boozing haunts.

Unreliable help is provided by stoner-type Gene (Lee Lynch), who claims to be a drinking-buddy of the seldom-seen Charlie, but whose chief priority seems to be the pursuit of free food and drinks.

Given his chosen premise, it's no surprise that Nordstrom's script should include scenes of brotherly bonding and brawling, as Pete and Bob down brew after brew — real-life Chippewa Falls ale Leinenkugel's is their preferred brand — and catch up on a couple of years' worth of family dramas.

The predictable aspects of the screenplay are consistently elevated by thoroughly believable playing of the two main actors, who evoke a convincing fraternal relationship despite a physical and facial mismatch. Their characters are carefully and intelligently developed against a pungent backdrop of what are evidently real bars and their regulars. The brothers' meanderings given a wild-card spin by the presence of the tireless chatterbox Gene.
While Lynch, himself a talented director, amusingly steals scenes after scene, Sawdust City is very much Nordstrom's show. As an actor, he keeps bearded, lanky, blowhard Bob just the right side of obnoxious, and as director, writer and editor his choices are consistently smart and fresh. How very rare it is to find a first-time filmmaker so skilled in each of these critically important areas. Nordstrom's most notable previous credit was as editor of Mike Ott's fine Little Rock. His most inspired ploy here is to punctuate, and obliquely comment upon, the brothers' odyssey with the mordantly philosophical musings of real-life Wisconsin radio-presenter Jack Raymond, whose lugubrious tones make Garrison Keillor sound like Howard Stern.

Production company: Small Form Films
Cast: David Nordstrom, Carl McLaughlin, Lee Lynch, Becca Barr
Director/screenwriter/editor: David Nordstrom
Producers: Mike Ott, Frederick Thornton
Executive producers: Denny Densmore, Helen Nordstrom, Chuck Nordstrom
Director of photography: James Laxton
Production, costume designer: E.B. Brooks
Music: Devin McNulty
Sales: Small Form, Los Angeles
No rating, 97 minutes