Etienne! screening at Ozark Foothill Filmfest

March 25, 2011

I don’t typically watch movies more than once, and when I do it’s hardly ever by choice. I’m simply not wired the way some people are, I don’t enjoy watching Caddyshack for the 20th time. I get a little restless when I know all the beats and reversals. Some people like the way it feels to rub their mind’s dogtrots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just prefer a little novelty.

Still, it surprises me to realize that the film I’ve likely watched the most over the past three years or so is Jeff Mizushima’s exceedingly curious Etienne!, a gentle little movie about a strange young man and his relationship with his dwarf hamster, the Etienne of the title.

I’ve watched this movie a lot because I’ve shown it to a lot of people — I screened it in the LifeQuest class I teach, and I screened it at a private fundraiser. I watched it when it played at last year’s the Little Rock Film Festival. And I watched a rough cut of it that my friend Tim Jackson provided me with soon after he became involved with the movie.

Jackson and his partner Josh Miller are executive producers of the film, and so maybe you should factor that in when you consider what I’m about to say about it — I like these guys. Tim’s one of the guys I get together with on a a semi-regular basis to talk about things in general and the state of the Arkansas film community in particular. So even if I had something bad to say about Etienne! I probably wouldn’t say it — I’d just recuse myself from writing a review.

But I want to write about Etienne! because I love it. And I love it not because it’s a technically perfect, beautifully realized film — in fact, it’s not that at all. It’s a kind of shaggy dog story of a movie, the kind of thing that would cause some people to shake their heads. It feels like an amateur production — though I mean “amateur” in the absolute best sense of that sometimes perverted word; I mean it to describe someone who does something for love not profit, not someone whose efforts aren’t of quality. Etienne! is not a shoddy movie; it is simply not a movie designed to make money.

On the other hand, it is a movie that a lot of people will like, and a few will think is so precious that they want to take it home and make a pet of it. Tim himself described it best — it is an unique movie that works both as a kiddie pacifier and an arthouse curiosity, a little sweet slice of slacker life that repudiates the modern need to cram ourselves with experience and sensation. It’s almost a parody of a certain kind of road movie, but there’s nothing arch or self-conscious about it. It’s darling.

It’s a pretty simple story. Richard (Richard Vallejos) is a mild, unambitious young man with an ironically meant porn ’stache. (I met Richard at last year’s LRFF; he was either in character or his onscreen persona is quite similar to his actual personality. Taking a break from school, he works a minimalist, low pressure job at a boutique hotel in San Francisco. He shares an apartment with a benign though alarming roommate who makes enervating electronic music (and who was, Tim, assured me, simply acting naturally), and Etienne, on whom Richard dotes.

But Etienne is acting lethargic, and a trip to the vet yields a disastrous diagnosis. But before Richard will have his pet put down, he decides to show him the world, And so the pair embark on a bicycle trip up the Northern California coast. Where they have adventures, and encounter several offbeat (not to say “quirky”) characters, including indie rock miniaturists Great Northern, a pin-hole camera hobbyist (Caveh Zahedi) and Elodie (Megan Harvey), a refugee from a busted relationship.

Despite its shambling, almost desultory nature, Mizushima is a canny, observant filmmaker and Etienne! teases some rather profound notions about randomness, friendship and the natural anesthetic qualities of slime. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen. And that’s a good thing.

Etienne! screens Sunday at noon, in Independence Hall of the University of Arkansas Community College-Batesville. General admission is $5. For more information click here.

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