Dir: Cullen Hoback
Scripted pseudo-realities are an integral part of the current cultural mainstream. With the advent of each new reality series, we grow increasingly desensitized to the manipulative and voyeuristic nature of our entertainment of choice. This is hardly natural, and it can’t possibly be healthy. But lest you harbor any doubts on this subject, or simply can’t shake your addiction to the latest season of “Teen Mom,” you’ll find a sobering yet paradoxically scintillating wake-up call in the form of director Cullen Hoback’s unnerving new film. FrICTON is a mesmeric exercise that blurs the line between fiction and fantasy, a ruthless experiment in which Hoback blends documentary form, amateur actors and a constantly evolving script to explore the effect of real life and true lies caught on camera. The results are destructive, to say the least, and leave us wondering whether or not such art is worth the damage it wreaks. And yet who are we to judge the orchestrator of a spectacle to which we sat glued in morbid fascination for a full 90 minutes?
Hoback, the sneaky devil, has us caught in the crosshairs.
It all begins innocently, even appropriately, when Hoback shows up to document the creative communal life at a private summer arts camp in bucolic New Hampshire. With permission from the under-funded camp’s eight students, artistic director Jeremy Mathison and his wife Amy (played by themselves), Hoback scripts a realistic but fictitious plot around which to structure his “mockumentary” film. According to the script, the very pretty and talented Amy will be seduced into an intimate, if not overtly sexual, relationship with the troubled and charismatic scholarship student August (August Thompson), a boy at times both manipulative and vulnerable in his quest for Amy’s attention. Naturally, this is where things get sticky. August plays his role just a wee bit too well, while Jeremy, whether inadvertently or by design, comes across as an overbearing, competitive ass. It doesn’t take long for us to assume (or for Hoback to exploit) the fact that Amy is fed up with her husband; August is merely a dramatic pawn, set to catalyze the rupture already brewing beneath the surface of Amy and Jeremy’s relationship.
FrICTION disturbs and fascinates by balancing seeming artlessness with the inevitable collapse of boundaries inherent to the confusion of art and life. Unlike most of the reality TV that invades our lives theses days like flashy background noise, Hoback’s film is a genuinely artistic pursuit – more worthwhile, yes, but also infinitely more dangerous. In both mediums, a group of “characters” are aware that they are being filmed, their lives scripted to compel the interest of an audience: but while the stars of
“The Hills” are driven by fame and untethered by artistic aspirations or (let’s just say it) talent, the cast of FrICTION is composed entirely of young artists who care – and who are thus in real danger of losing themselves in the midst of a (supposed) act. In the wake of recent hoax films like I’m Still Here and orchestrated reality dramas, there’s a strong urge to doubt these kids – to assume that they know exactly what they’re doing. And it is this very skepticism — the product of our jaded imaginations and sullied ability to suspend our disbelief – that necessitates a project like FrICTION to wake us from our collective cultural coma.
Thus shaken, it is difficult to avoid a sense of responsibility and guilt when, at the end of the film, three people’s lives are irrevocably derailed. Somehow, though, I suspect Hoback had such a reaction in mind when he finally decided to release his final cut; and while I can’t honestly say that I like or even admire this strategy, I was pushed to think long and hard as a result. This, above all else, makes FrICTION worth watching. More real than you’ll either expect or initially believe it to be, Hoback’s latest release is an uncomfortable, distinctly valuable movie that gnaws at you long after the final credits fade to black.
by Lauren Westerfield