The Surface


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Surface
"Hains is impressive in getting past the twin barriers of his prettiness and his character's distanced nature, persuading viewers to identify with him and care about his fate."

Watching the opening scenes of The Surface, one might easily misjudge who is to be its central protagonist. Chis (Nicholas McDonald) is self assured, assertive, conventional looking, the standard indie film hero. But instead we follow his boyfriend, Evan (Harry Hains) who is long-haired, socially reticent and pretty. Despite the impression some films might give, pretty people - where they stand out from the rest of the cast - rarely get to be heroes. Their place is generally to be objects of desire for other people, cyphers in others' narratives. Evan is trying to take control of his own.

There are problems pretty people face which - at least outside the pages of Madame Bovary - rarely get discussed, partly because other people resent the privileges that go with them and partly because they're just not taken seriously. Hains obviously has personal experience to inform his work in this regard, and Saul's script is usually astute on the matter. A child of the foster system, Evan, now 22, drifts through life habitually depending on other people. He's a trophy in their eyes, so it's easy for him to drift from one relationship to the next but hard for him to be noticed for the person he is beneath the surface. His smallest transgressions are viewed through a lens of intense jealousy.

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Things are not going well between Evan and Chris. Evan has no money; Chris is rich and lets him stay in his apartment without making any kind of financial contribution. It might seem that Evan is savvier about this than he is, recognising it as a potential problem, but perhaps that's just the kind of wariness a kid picks up in foster homes. Both of them make bad decisions and show limited insight but, crucially, the film itself is smarter - it's just that they're young and lack perspective. This creates a sense of tragedy in itself as one can't help but wonder how things might have gone for them if they'd met later in life. Overall, though, the mood of the film is not downbeat. Evan may be dissatisfied by life overall but he still finds pleasure in many aspects of it.

One of these aspects, new to him, is filmmaking. He picks up a camera from a old man in a yard sale and experimenting with it forms the core of his personal journey. Like Kate Bosworth's character in Unconscious, he's fascinated by other people's home movies and the sense of family that they create. It's partly through this fascination that he grows close to the old man's son, Peter (Michael Redford Carney), and despite a 21-year age gap, it soon becomes apparent that there's a mutual attraction between them. In this context, however, Evan finds himself hemmed in again by cliched expectations and assumptions, unable to connect on an equal basis.

Although the central plot of the film is far from original, these well developed themes and observations enable it to communicate more than most of its ilk. The sex scenes are filmed very discreetly and the focus is much more on character. Hains is impressive in getting past the twin barriers of his prettiness and his character's distanced nature, persuading viewers to identify with him and care about his fate. From Peter's viewpoint we see him romanticised, shot amid flowers, in water, illuminated by long light, yet Peter has a shrewdness the young men lack and knows perfectly well that Evan has challenges to face - he's able to appreciate both the surface and what's underneath, even if he might not value them in the same way.

An intelligent look at imbalance in relationships, designed for an audience of teens and twentysomethings, this is a more sophisticated film than it might first appear to be.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2015
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A young man with no family struggles to find his place in the world.

Director: Michael J Saul

Writer: Michael J Saul

Starring: Harry Hains, Michael Redford Carney, Nicholas McDonald, Kyle Patrick Darling, Samantha Bowling, Jinny Chung

Year: 2015

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: US


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