Film Review: We Pedal Uphill

You keep hoping the late Robert Altman would reappear and take over this haphazard, dying-to-be-meaningful omnibus account of America today.

We Pedal Uphill is a patchwork quilt of 13 short films taking place all over the United States, and while it would be nice to give it a hand for the kaleidoscopic, trenchant diversity of its pointedly post-9/11 storytelling, the overall effect is not so much “So new!” as “So what?”

Filmmaker Roland Tec strains for meaning and irony, but his blowsy technique—all woozy handheld cameras to lend immediacy and fake emotion to a moment—and overblown direction of actors constantly impede him. Rather than everyday you-and-me people we can all supposedly relate to, the characters here just come off as so many stalwart indie/stage actors chewing whatever scenery’s available.

The majority of the tales are negligible. One of the key episodes is about a librarian being threatened by the feds with imprisonment for not handing over the checkout records of a man with an Arabian name, all in the questionable name of the Patriot Act. Another sequence involves a bitchy presidential aide berating her staff photographer for his perceived ineptitude in capturing the proper shot of the President symbolically riding his bicycle up and not downhill on Earth Day. (Another aide commits the casual act of a litterbug in a typical example of this film’s heavy-handed humor.)

A tale involving a black man who drives miles to seek out and personally thank the white man who saved his family during Hurricane Katrina, only to be met with obvious distance in an all-white neighborhood, could have been powerful, but is undone by that aforementioned clumsy, obvious emoting and excruciatingly insistent photography. Whatever happened to films in which a viewer could discover things for himself?

Tec includes two gay stories in this omnibus. One involves a couple who hook up during one of those notoriously drug-fueled disco circuit parties, a chronically adolescent part of queer culture familiar within the community but perhaps not so to your average heterosexual. One of the guys is desperate to do drugs before sex, while the other is wary, having a job which randomly tests for narcotics. This sequence at least has the feel of some actual lived-in experience, and is much better acted than the others. Tec ends his film with an account of a kid leaving his homophobic Bible Belt home, after burying verboten books by the likes of Christopher Isherwood and Truman Capote in the front yard. What is intended to be deeply moving comes across as pure, rote cliché.