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Phoenix, Oregon

For those of you who don’t know her, Ronni Lacroute is a prolific local philanthropist here in Portland. Her impact on the local theatre scene is so incalculably great that every other curtain speech in town is contractually obligated to begin by thanking her.

(Full disclosure: Yes, Ronni was an especially generous sponsor for my own “From the Ruby Lounge” production a while back.)

I bring her up because few months ago, in an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, Ronni observed that it’s actually the smaller theatre companies that are in a better position to adapt to life during and after the COVID-19 shutdown. Her logic goes that the bigger companies have so much more contracts, scheduling, and money involved, all of which have to run like clockwork or little problems cascade into bigger ones. By comparison, smaller theatre companies are used to running on a hand-to-mouth basis, raising money and putting on shows whenever and wherever they’re able, so they’ve got a lot more flexibility.

I’m seeing something like that in cinema as well.

It’s the bigger studios that seem to be struggling with life in a pandemic world, either delaying their huge tentpole releases indefinitely or trying to figure out advertising and distribution via streaming. The bigger studios and multiplex chains are scrambling to figure out how to reopen the theaters safely, not to mention the self-defeating dustups over how to implement streaming on a broader scale in a mutually beneficial way without completely upturning the film industry as we know it. Hell, that’s not even getting started on the multitude of unions in Hollywood — I’m sure they’ve all got something to say about this. To say nothing about the Oscars and what all those elaborate awards ceremonies will look like for this year.

All of this squabbling, all of this indecision, and millions of dollars are being lost with every day this drags on. But indie filmmakers don’t have this problem.

This pandemic has proven to be a windfall for independent filmmakers who’ve never had hundreds of millions of dollars to lose. Filmmakers who were struggling to get their pictures up on the big screen at the best of times, many of whom have been resorting to online streaming and social media word-of-mouth for years. Filmmakers who’ve always had to be crafty and flexible because they can’t throw money and manpower at any problem (except a worldwide pandemic) like the big studios can.

So here’s Phoenix, Oregon, a film set in the namesake town just north of the California border. Though it was actually shot in Klamath Falls, roughly 72 miles away, presumably on a budget within six or seven figures. You probably haven’t heard of this movie — to date, it’s only grossed $23,613 worldwide on 33 theaters. Yet because the film hit theaters right when the pandemic lockdown started, this meager success was enough to put it right at the top of the box office charts, fluctuating between #1 and #2 for four weeks straight.

Thus the filmmakers took the movie online and now it’s available for streaming. Let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?

The film opens with Bobby, played by James Le Gros. He’s living alone in a trailer home, moping around because it’s his birthday, he’s feeling his age, and his boss (Kyle, played by Diedrich Bader) is a bully who’s aggressively running his employees and his business into the ground. Oh, and Bobby’s fawning over Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), a liquor dealer with a complicated relationship of her own (Mario, played by Reynaldo Gallegos), even as Bobby is still holding a torch for the ex-wife who got away.

And I’m watching this at a time when our streets are erupting with racial protests and we’re all at risk of dying from a contagious pandemic. This really isn’t the best time for the subject matter, is what I’m saying. In fact, movies about the ennui of an aging straight white everyman haven’t been relevant since… what, American Beauty in 1999?

After the cavalcade of political shakeups, economic disasters, global crises, and cultural revolutions from 9/11 onwards, we’ve all got bigger problems to deal with. I’m sorry, but we’ve already got a metric ton of stories about middle-class white men suffering from the privilege of growing old — right now, we’re dealing with people of color and LGBTQ individuals getting killed in their youth, a far more relevant problem that we still haven’t discussed or portrayed nearly enough.

To be entirely fair, Bobby is clearly living in poverty and he’s getting screwed over by his well-to-do boss. Who among us can’t relate to that? It’s also plainly visible that his ambitions never came to pass, his life’s dream of being an artist completely fell apart despite all his best efforts, and he’s looking at a life of wasted potential. That’s an inherently sympathetic position to be in. Then again, the guy’s an aspiring artist trying to sell an autobiographical graphic novel — little wonder it hasn’t sold.

Anyway, the plot kicks into gear with Bobby’s longtime best friend (Carlos, played by Jesse Borrego), who’s been saving up his money to buy an abandoned bowling alley. With nothing left to lose, Bobby agrees to pitch in his life savings to become a part owner of the bowling alley, restoring the venue to the former glory of their high school days. Carlos runs the pizza kitchen while Bobby — a high school bowling champ — runs the bar and the bowling.

Potential catch: Mario (The quasi-boyfriend of the love interest, remember him?) is the third investor. Yeah, it turns out he’s a venture capitalist who came to Oregon to get an early foothold into the legal marijuana industry. Why he set up shop in southern Oregon instead of Portland, hell if I know. Anyway, he’s flush with cash from some billion-dollar weed investment (those are his figures, not mine), so now he’s got some extra money to throw toward this little pizzeria/bowling alley, with the understanding that he won’t be running the place in any official capacity.

Does anyone think it’s seriously going to be that easy? Especially when his quasi-girlfriend is the protagonist’s love interest? Didn’t think so.

Then there’s the matter of Al, played to the cheap seats by Kevin Corrigan. He’s the technician brought on board to renovate the lanes, the pin setters, the ball returns, and so on. It bears noting that Al is a technician with a highly particular specialty, purportedly the only one in the county who can work with these machines. And he’s played like a boorish asshole so our protagonist can have a bowling rival. There’s also a kind of irony — Bobby left his former job so he wouldn’t have to be employed by a domineering jerk, and now he has to deal with a domineering jerk of an employee.

(Side note: As someone who watched the first few seasons of “Fringe”, yes, I’m somewhat tickled to see Kevin Corrigan back in a bowling alley.)

The film and the bowling alley itself are perhaps most notable for their emphasis on small-town pride. The notion of a Portland-caliber venue in the boondocks of Southern Oregon is brushed off as laughable, but that’s exactly what these these characters are building together. Bobby explicitly forbids selling Budweiser products, procuring only the finest in locally sourced beverages. Carlos’ incredible pizzas are made with family recipes and home-grown ingredients.

Speaking of which, Carlos has a lovely development arc in which he has to learn how to accept compromise. His pizzas are amazing and his methods are top-notch, but they were never designed to work on this scale. He can’t bring himself to make any kind of substitutions, he won’t make pizzas in different sizes, he won’t freeze the dough for preservation, and training additional staff could take months. This is his art and he takes great pride in it, but he has to learn how to adapt if he’s going to keep making these pizzas and stay in business. I know it sounds cliched on paper, but it’s all delivered in a way that’s genuinely effective.

When the film is at its best, it shows a distinctly blue-collar sensibility that never comes off as phony or condescending. Rather, it comes off as a movie that speaks to and celebrates the 99 percent. It’s a movie specifically built to bring affordable joy to the masses, and it’s about a bowling alley built with the same goal in mind.

As someone wiser than I — Benny Binion, most likely — once said, “If you want to make money, make the little guy feel big.”

But then we get to the aliens. Not literal aliens, of course, the aliens that figure into Bobby’s graphic novel. See, Bobby has this idea that we’re all living in a simulation and all of life is preordained by the will of aliens who dick around with us for their amusement. Basically, the aliens are a metaphor for fate. I’m afraid I couldn’t take the concept anywhere near as seriously as Bobby does.

A much bigger problem is the Bobby/Al rivalry. To put it bluntly, I completely checked out every time Al came onscreen. I could never understand why Al would keep antagonizing the manager of a brand new bowling alley that could pay his bills for the foreseeable future if it does well. And it makes no sense why Bobby would challenge Al to a bowling match — the one guy in all the world who knows Bobby’s lanes and machinery better than he does. And Al is such a ridiculously heightened character that he doesn’t remotely fit in what’s otherwise a sweet and authentic movie.

Al is apparently the only bowling technician in the county, and Bobby’s place is apparently the new greatest bowling alley in the county. You’d think these two would at least be self-conscious enough to know that they need each other, so grow up and get along already.

Though to be fair, if I squint and tilt my head a little, I can see how this might feed into the overarching theme of nostalgia. Bobby constantly remarks about how this new bowling alley makes him forget about his midlife crisis and he feels like a teenager again. So if the goal is to make Al a stereotypical high school bully to Bobby’s everyman teenager, then mission accomplished, I guess.

Oh, and also: Never once do we ever see Bobby bowl anything less than a strike or a spare. That doesn’t exactly help the tension. He’s only bowled the one perfect game back in high school and he hasn’t bowled since? Yeah fucking right.

(Side note: For how much I absolutely hated Al, he got a line that deserves special recognition. “I can smell the turkey cooking.” Great double entendre there with bowling terminology and Corrigan delivers it beautifully. I love it.)

But then the climax happens. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but major kudos to this movie for taking a bold step, because it pays off the major themes and arcs of the film with a serious gut punch. Wonderful.

Phoenix, Oregon starts out rough, but it sticks the landing in a big way. The acting is uneven, and the plot is rough in stretches, but there’s some genuine heart in here. And of course I appreciate the presence of so many prominent Latinx actors to spice up the boring old melancholy whiteness of our protagonist and his bullshit penny-ante bowling match. But even Bobby is bearable in those moments when he finally gets over himself and learns to have a good time.

You might have to stick with this one for a while, but you’ll probably find it a sweet, charming, intimate little picture if you give it half a chance. Definitely worth a $5 streaming rental.

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