Film Review: Quitters

Well-layered film about a disenfranchised young man fleeing a disintegrating family life and seeking refuge in the home of his putative girlfriend.
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There is no shortage of angst-ridden young men coming of age in dysfunctional families on film (or in fiction). The story has become a tiresome cliché and it’s easy to misconstrue Noah Pritzker’s debut feature Quitters as a classic example of the genre when in fact it’s an original, nuanced exploration of profoundly displaced (indeed, literally homeless) teenagers emerging from well-heeled “restructured” families that are simply “broken,” to use a dated term. Civility is nonexistent, drug abuse is prevalent, and parents’ roles—not to mention parent-child relationships—are definition-free.

Set in a posh San Francisco community, Pritzker and co-writer Ben Tarnoff’s drama centers on the lifeless misadventures of a nondescript teenager, Clark Raymond (Ben Konigsberg), who has little connection with his pill-popping mom (Mira Sorvino) and even less with his self-centered, self-indulgent dad (Greg Germann). The latter is indifferent and/or emotionally abusive to his son. Typically, he plays at being a dad (or what he thinks a dad should be) and clearly wishes he wasn’t one at all.

After Mom totals the car and is shipped off to rehab, Clark unceremoniously moves into the home of Natalya (Morgan Turner), a young girl he is trying to hook up with in the wake of being dumped by another co-ed, Etta (Kara Hayward), whom he liked though his feelings for either gal are amorphous at best. None of the teens has a genuine attraction for or response to anyone or anything. They are close to affectless.

When Dad publicly berates his son at his girlfriend’s home—and it’s a mighty unpleasant scene—Clark’s blank expression is not a camouflaged defense. He’s indifferent. Similarly so is Etta, who is having a sexual relationship with her English teacher (a fine performance by Kieran Culkin). She’s not in love with him, afraid of him, or even angling for a better grade. Her family life (like Clark’s) is disintegrating and rather than having her live with a difficult sister in a hotel room, the teacher provides some temporary shelter. So what’s the big deal about a little sex with him? She certainly doesn’t feel demeaned. It’s all transient anyway.

On the flip side, Natalya’s mother Veronica (Saffron Burrows) seems to feel something. She’s puzzled (but not too puzzled) by Clark’s intrusive presence in their home. He can be imperious and arrogant. Nonetheless, she allows him to stay until she doesn’t. Mood swings with neither prelude nor aftermath are commonplace among the lot.

It’s an amoral (not immoral) universe and perhaps no one reflects that amorality more vividly than Natalya’s stepdad Todd (Scott Lawrence). He was Veronica’s boyfriend before she married someone else who ultimately died. A widowed single mom, she reconnected with Todd, who was probably in the picture even while she was married. “I took what’s mine,” Todd casually explains the circumstances of their marriage to Clark. It’s not the banality of evil, but nevertheless evokes the frightening nonchalance of entitlement. There’s also an undertone of cruelty. Meanness is coming from all sides, haphazardly and/or deliberately targeted. Mostly, it’s accidental.

What makes this film so noteworthy is its matter-of-fact presentation without editorial commentary. Nothing is leaned on, but lives are subtly revealed. And unlike many movies that fall apart towards the end, here its vision is only clarified. The final scene is open to interpretation, intriguingly so. It also hints at the ambiguous meaning of the film’s title.

The problem with Quitters is that the characters are not sympathetic, the storytelling is slow-paced, and at moments the acting feels improvised. When will actors/directors learn that improvisation (or acting that mimics its particular tone and cadence) does not sound remotely real or truthful? It simply sounds like another improvisation. And then there’s the film’s deceptive familiarity. Losing patience early on is understandable. Hopefully, audiences will hang in. Clark is not Holden Caulfield of the 21st century. He (friends and family) are a new breed.

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