If you were to somehow distill into a single movie character the most insufferable attributes of Holden Caulfield, Max Fischer and the self-absorbed grown-up version of Antoine Doinel, you might come up with someone like the charisma-challenged protagonist of helmer Noah Pritzker’s debut feature, “Quitters.” Pritzker and co-scripter Ben Tarnoff earn grudging admiration for daring to construct their fitfully amusing dramedy around a central figure who, at his frequent worst, comes across as borderline sociopathic. And Ben Konigsberg displays an undeniably impressive fearlessness while playing the lead role as written, without subtle pleas (or, really, pleas of any kind) for sympathy and understanding. Barring an improbable outburst of critical hosannas, however, it’s unlikely that even venturesome audiences will want to spend much time with this character, or the movie that contains him.
Clark Rayman (Konigsberg), the teenage son of a well-to-do San Francisco couple, appears to have emotionally distanced himself from his parents long before his mood-swinging mom (Mira Sorvino) crashes her car into a tree (Clark is a physically unhurt but badly rattled passenger) and is sent to rehab to recover from prescription-pill misuse. After too many clashes with his increasingly impatient father (Greg Germann), Clark decides it might be good idea to live anywhere but home — provided, of course, that he can find anyone not a blood relation who’ll put up with him.
Early on, Clark reveals himself as boundlessly egocentric and capriciously judgmental. When Etta (Kara Hayward), a lovely classmate with issues of her own, rebuffs his rather presumptuous romantic overtures, he ends their friendship with fierce abruptness and sets his sights on another attractive coed, Natalia (Morgan Turner), who’s appreciably more responsive to his attentions. Natalia is so smitten that she talks her mother (Saffron Burrows) and stepdad (Scott Lawrence) into letting Clark move in as a houseguest for an indeterminate period. Nothing good comes of this.
There are moments in “Quitters” — most notably, when Clark’s arrogant overfamiliarity unsettles Natalia’s mom during a shopping trip — that suggest the movie is poised to take a detour into the darkly perverse. At other times, especially when Clark’s dad appears ready to express his disapproval nonverbally, there are hints that the narrative might climax with explosive violence.
But nothing ever gets too far out of hand as Pritzker proceeds apace with a languid storytelling style best described as muted. Etta’s relationship with a nearing-burnout teacher (Kieran Culkin) is depicted with a restraint that effectively lowers the cringe quotient, and the film’s single most discomforting scene — in which Clark behaves boorishly after he deflowers Natalia — relies on emotional brutality, not brute force, for impact. It’s as though the entire movie were designed to underscore with understatement the sheer disruptiveness of Clark’s rude behavior.
Sorvino and Turner are standouts in the supporting cast, generating compassion for their characters without overtly playing the victim card. Germann plays his cards even closer to the vest, to nicely ambiguous effect. And Culkin has some oddly funny moments as a high-school teacher who conducts himself as though everything connected with his job — grading papers, drifting into an affair with a student, everything — is an unwelcome distraction from his writing.
Production values are more than adequate to the task of indicating that both Clark and Natalia are living in enviable comfort, if not luxury.
Film Review: 'Quitters'
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 18, 2015. Running time: 90 MIN.
A Really Good Guys production in association with AgX Prods. Produced by Ben Howe, Luca Borghese.
Directed by Noah Pritzker. Screenplay, Pritzker, Ben Tarnoff. Camera (color), Jakob Ihre; editor, Beatrice Sisul; music, David Shire; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Michael E. Goldman; costume designer, Aggie Rodgers; sound, Brian Copenhagen; assistant director, Elaine Marie Gibson; casting, Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein, Deborah Maxwell Dion.
Ben Konigsberg, Greg Germann, Kara Hayward, Saffron Burrows, Kieran Culkin, Morgan Turner, Scott Lawrence, Jim Breuer, Mira Sorvino.