A film review by Craig J. Koban April 14, 2020

INTERNATIONAL FALLS jjj

2020, No MPAA rating, 93 mins.

 

Rachael Harris as Dee  /  Rob Huebel as Tim  /  Matthew Glave as Gary  /  Mindy Sterling as Hazel  /  Jessie Sherman as Ruthie 

Directed by Amber McGinnis  /  Written by Thomas Ward, based on his play

Amber McGinnis' INTERNATIONAL FALLS begins quaintly as a quirky small town Americana comedy about a struggling and touring stand-up comic that strikes up an unlikely friendship and romance with one of the locals.  Just when you think, though, that you know precisely where it's heading, McGinnis' feature film debut effort manages to subvert our very expectations of such romcom material, and surprisingly traverses down some poignant and distressing paths.  A multiple award winner on small indie film festival circuits last year - and finally seeing major distribution and a VOD release now - this modest Kickstarter production mixes humor and heartache uncommonly well while managing to be a profoundly involving character study. 

International Falls is set in the titular Minnesota-Canadian border town with a population of less than seven thousand.  During the dead of winter, it's as frigid as the Arctic.  Residing there is the middle aged and unhappily married Dee (Rachel Harris), who spends her days working a monotonous job as a hotel front desk clerk, but has a secret dream of one day escaping this suffocating existence and become a stand-up comedian (most of her limited free time involves her checking out local comics at the hotel's bar).  If being in the "ice box of the nation" and having a soul crushing occupation wasn't bad enough, she soon discovers that her outwardly congenial and caring husband in Gary (Matthew Glave) is having an affair behind her back, which incenses her to no end.  She keeps knowledge of this to herself, which only complicates matters for her all the more.  Everything about her life in International Falls seem to be closing in and conspiring against her. 

A momentary jolt of excitement comes to the town in Tim (Rob Huebel), a down-on-his luck stand-up comic that has arrived to do a series of gigs at Dee's hotel, and his meet-cute with Dee is memorably awkward (when Dee's co-worker enthusiastically tells him that "Once you visit International Falls, it's hard to leave," the comic deadpans back, "Well, they said the same thing about Siberia under Stalin.").  Tim continues to have his way with a local off sale clerk, who expresses interest in attending one of his shows, but Tim self-deprecatingly retorts, "I wouldn't bother...I'm not that good."  Maybe he has a reasonable point.  Tim was recently separated and is quite bitter over it, not to mention that his thirst to be a famous and profitable stand-up has been has all but left him as a result.  He has little to no energy on stage and seems pretty broken down by his own life.  They say that comedy comes from a dark place from within, but with Tim it seems like his inner demons are all but holding him back on tour. 

 

 

Dee attends one of Tim's shows, and seems to be the only one in attendance with any genuine interest in his ultra low key and dry material. She seems drawn to this man, so much so that she fakes being drunk in hopes of him seducing her and taking her back to his room, which does work.  After a cringe inducingly weird sexual encounter between the pair that's more pathetic than titillating, Dee and Tim decide that it's best just to share in each other's company and talk the night away, with both respectively unpeeling layer upon layer of hidden insecurities and doubts that they suffer from.  Dee wants out of her loveless marriage and to become a comic, whereas Tim is already out of his failed marriage and wants to stop being a comic, mostly because he has zero passion for it anymore.  He has fully accepted his self-anointed status as an unfunny nobody on the comedy circuit, but Dee thinks that his well spring of knowledge about his profession would come in handy to nurture her own future career path in it.  The pair decide to spend more time together, touring the town while Tim dishes out professional advice the best he can.  And they start getting closer and more intimate with each passing minute, with Dee becoming more self-aware and actualized.  She fully understands the need to end things with her loser husband, even if it means upending the lives of their children in the process.   

As far as set-ups go, the one contained within INTERNATIONAL FALLS certainly is as old as the romcom genre itself - two hopelessly lost souls at their proverbial wits end find each other through fate and form an inseparable bond in a short period of time.  Plotting contrivances stick out here in the early going, on top of the fact that INTERNATIONAL FALLS aims at times for a decidedly FARGO-esque vibe, with both films being placed within small Minnesota towns and the eclectic citizens that populate it.  The northern border town in INTERNATIONAL FALLS contains the predictable number of folksy caricatures, with most of the personas around Tim and Dee not being given much in the way of development.  Basically, the setting is bitterly cold and its people are carefree, simple minded and heavily accented, but I will concede that McGinnis manages to mock this charmingly kooky environment without resorting to petty cruelty.  The screenplay by Thomas Ward (based on his own two-character play) manages to find a way of bringing out the ethereal appeal of the town while poking fun at it all the same.  Plus, and going back to my initial point about character set-ups here, INTERNATIONAL FALLS rarely falls prey to becoming overtly predictable when it comes to where Tim and Dee's semi-platonic, semi-romantic relationship is heading. 

I would even go as far as to say that this film is less a traditional romcom love story than it is about two wounded people trying to get themselves out of deeply rooted depressions, with emphasis on Dee's yearning to change her life for the better via Tim's guidance (who, oddly enough, has all but given up on nearly everything in life).  Furthermore, Dee's whole arc in the film is not so much predetermined by which man she'll end up with in the end, but rather how she relies on the help of one man to leave another so that she can hone in on her own dreams and aspirations.  The trauma of mid-life crisis permeates INTERNATIONAL FALLS, and the film indeed finds humor and pathos in it.  The scenes between Dee and Lee have a blunt force frankness that's not usually attributed to this genre, and the dialogue exchanges involving them have a gut-wrenching openness and rawness.  The film never goes out of its way to make us thoroughly like these people (they're really damaged goods in multiple respects), but rather to get into their headspaces and understand their levels of emotional pain.   

You've probably seen Huebel dozens of times before in bit supporting roles in comedies, but here he gives a totally authentic and understated performance that walks a slippery slope between being a smart-ass funnyman and someone that's destructively selfish and unsympathetic.  He brings depth and nuance to his tricky role in ways I didn't think he was capable of, plus he has tremendous unforced and natural chemistry with his co-star in Harris, who has also had minor roles in screen comedies before, but here she's all kinds of terrific in a challenging part that requires her to really run the emotional gambit; she confidently carries this film and brings out her role's genuinely felt melancholy.  Both of their superb performances allow this story to seem so much more grounded and relatable than what's usually on display in these genre efforts, which also helps considerably with where it all heads in its final act. 

As for that, INTERNATIONAL FALLS dives headfirst into an extremely dark turn of events (that I won't reveal here), other than to say that it's perhaps a lot more solemn than what audience members were probably expecting going in based on the trailers.  These story mechanizations are not necessarily a bad thing, and I commend the creative bravery here, but it's a somber turn of events that may turn people off.  But I also liked how positive change for one of the film's characters is spawned out of it, leading to a conclusion that's not as closed and "happy" as it appears to be.  I wasn't expected to be moved as much as I was while watching INTERNATIONAL FALLS unfold, especially because I was more than anticipating its story obligatorily unfolding as another in a long list of feel-good, small town romcoms.  What I got was far different as an exploration of shared marital woes and how people process and deal with that through newfound kinship.  And the film really puts its main career breakout stars and director as people to watch out for moving forward.  

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