'Trash Fire': Sundance Review

More restrained than deranged.

Richard Bates, Jr.’s third feature, co-starring Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur and Fionnula Flanagan, debuted in the festival’s Midnight section.

With two low-budget cult films among his credits, Richard Bates, Jr. shifts a bit closer to the mainstream with Trash Fire, a relatively reserved horror-comedy that delves into darkly dysfunctional family secrets. Featuring a name cast led by Adrian Grenier, Bates is clearly reaching for a more refined demographic, a strategy that may earn the film a specialty niche if it can build a reputation on the festival circuit. 

While Trash Fire’s predecessors Excision and Suburban Gothic relied on outlandishly outsider characters, here Bates gives us Los Angeles pseudo-nihilist yuppie Owen (Grenier). This is a guy so completely screwed up by a horrific childhood tragedy that he compulsively takes out his anger and guilt on everyone around him, particularly his caring and supportive girlfriend, Isabel (Angela Trimbur), although even she’s had just about enough of his chronic hostility. Owen remains estranged from his only remaining family because he’s still convinced that as a teen he was responsible for the tragic death of his parents in a house fire that also severely disfigured his surviving sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord).

Even intensive couples therapy with psychiatrist Florence (Sally Kirkland) isn’t helping him progress much, but his frequent seizures and bulimia make Isabel reluctant to abandon their three-year relationship. Her unexpected pregnancy throws their dilemma into sharp relief, since she still considers Owen an unsuitable father, especially after he quickly assents to her having an abortion. At first she agrees, but then considers single parenthood as an alternative until Owen, desperate at the thought of being left alone, swears he’ll quit drinking and prepare to become a responsible father.

Isabel makes her acceptance of his offer conditional on a visit with Pearl at the home of his grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), where she has been living in seclusion since the fire nearly killed her. Although Owen warns Isabel that their reconciliation attempt can expect an unsympathetic reception from Violet, neither of them realizes just how much the years of neglect and blame have stoked her resentment, even as she’s deceitfully concealed crucial information about his parents’ deaths that could help Owen forge a more stable relationship with Isabel.

Loaded with dark humor, Bates’ script faces considerable challenges developing sympathetic characters. Owen is so dysfunctional and antisocial that Isabel’s concern for him seems almost willfully misplaced. When Violet turns out to be a foul-mouthed, vengeful Christian fanatic and Pearl reveals some distinctly strange behavior after years of isolation in her grandmother’s creepy, run-down home, Isabel emerges as the most likable among them. Her desire to reconcile with Owen seems increasingly questionable, however, as even more alarming secrets about his family continue to emerge.

Defying genre conventions, Bates allows many of these forceful emotions and twisted relationship dynamics to play out in nearly stationary master shots that push slowly in on the characters’ frequent sniping. Along with fairly minimal cutting, these techniques capably build tension within scenes, but can’t always manage to carry it over to subsequent sequences, resulting in sometimes uneven pacing. Brief, sudden flashback cuts to the disastrous house fire are too quick to make much of an impression and the foreshadowed violence that emerges in the final act plays more like melodrama than comedic horror after such a substantial buildup.

Casting Flanagan in any substantive role assumes the risk that she may outshine the other talent, but Violet proves to be so despicable that the other characters seem almost appealing by comparison. There’s no doubt that Bates has given the actress some of the choicest dialogue, but it’s her inimitable delivery and body language that truly make every caustic barb she utters reverberate with spiteful venom.

Fortunately, Grenier has enough comedic depth to absorb her verbal assaults while maintaining Owen’s vacant attitude, which only begins to lift when crisis strikes. Trimbur had a fun supporting role in last year’s slasher send-up The Final Girls, but Trash Fire's script relegates Isabel to nagging-girlfriend status for much of the film, which doesn’t serve to set up her crucial third-act role very decisively. Bates' returning actors McCord and Kirkland round out the cast, with McCord’s traumatized Pearl gratifyingly elevating the creepiness factor somewhat.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Circle of Confusion, Snowfort Pictures
Cast: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, AnnaLynne McCord, Fionnula Flanagan, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ray Santiago, Sally Kirkland
Director-writer: Richard Bates, Jr.
Producers: Lawrence Mattis, Matt Smith, David Lawson, Jr.
Executive producer: Makan Delrahim
Director of photography: Shane Daly
Production designer: Tracy Dishman
Editor: Yvonne Valdez
Costume designer: Anthony Tran
Music: Michl Britsch
Sales: Preferred Content, XYZ Films

Not rated, 91 minutes