Film Review: Lbs.

Heavyweight human drama of a food addict going cold turkey.

What Clerks was 16 years ago, Lbs. is today—the micro-budget movie that could. It remains an amazing thing to see how novice filmmakers, running on fumes and credit cards, can make something that stands up to a mega-dollar Hollywood drama.

Semi-autobiographical, and starring its co-writer, this 2004 Sundance selection finds 27-year-old Brooklyn boy Neil Perota (Carmine Famiglietti) stuffing his face, laying around in a sweaty, nearly 400-pound heap, and then reluctantly filling in for one of the drivers of his father's school-bus charter business. He suffers a heart attack while shuttling some kids, and a subsequent weeks-long hospital stay compels his sister Theresa (Sharon Angela) and their parents (Susan Varon, Fil Formicola) to postpone Theresa's wedding and kiss most of a nonrefundable fifty-grand goodbye.

Discharged and ordered by his doctor to diet, Neil pushes best friend Sacco (Michael Aronov) to sneak him contraband sweets as if he were doing drug deals—something that Sacco, a habitual cocaine user, knows his way around. Neil's future brother-in-law Anthony (Lou Martini, Jr.) spies Neil at a pizza shop breaking his diet with a Bacchanalian binge, and on the day of the rescheduled, much-scaled-down and rain-ruined backyard wedding, he loudly confronts Neil about his obesity and wasted life.

Having reached bottom, Neil buys a small plot of land and two dilapidated campers in the middle of nowhere. In shame and desperation, he isolates himself from his family, and convinces Sacco to join him in a cold-turkey effort to shed their respective addictions. An eventual argument over who has it worse—in a starkly illuminating scene written and played with perfectly honed dialogue, attitude and timing—pushes Sacco away. He’s alone now except for occasional visits from a lonely and frustrated housewife (Miriam Shor) and some CB-radio communication from the local (Eric A. Leffler) who sold him the land. The end results are bittersweet, far from either a Hollywood-cliché happy ending or indie-cliché bleakness.

Famiglietti began drafting the story in mid-1999, and five months later brought in his friend, self-taught filmmaker Matthew Bonifacio, to help shape it into a screenplay. They did three staged readings through March 2001, by which time Famiglietti had lost 70 pounds in order to convince investors that the script's physical transformation was doable. The two went on to shoot 46 days of principal photography over 27 months, with the only real budget compromise being the off-camera school-bus accident.

Aside from that, Lbs.' look and feel has an unassuming confidence that's all the more remarkable for this being a first feature, when new filmmakers usually can't resist being flashy in an attempt to be memorable. As with Clerks and some other low-budget dramas, the camerawork is direct and often just quietly observing, yet the story doesn't drag—Bonifacio and editor Jim Rubino know when to watch and when to move, and the few stylistic touches feel organic. And while it's not surprising that Famiglietti and Bonifacio get the bridge-and-tunnel borough details down, they also get that countryfolk camaraderie—the need-to-be-neighborly quality of people living together out in the sticks and having to rely on one another, while also having to put up with everyone knowing everything about your life and marriage.

The quality of the acting, often iffy in low-budget films, deserves mention. In particular, Shor turns her first, simply functional scene as a waitress taking an order into an exercise in acting real. So does Angela, late of “The Sopranos,” as Neil's supportive sis. Aronov as the subtly deteriorating Sacco and Leffler as a salesman with soul also impress. They're all as honest as the script.