Everyone loves an underdog, but we also kind of love an asshole. Gone are the days of the boy scout action hero or the drama of our straight laced do-gooding protagonist. Instead an age has arisen of complex and frankly, pretty awful characters populating film and screen, characters we root for and are deeply invested in despite how little concern they show for anyone but themselves. There are the obvious examples of Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, not cartoonish Snidely Whiplash villains but men who consistently take terrible actions with full knowledge of what they’re doing. It makes for juicy drama, and allows us to both relate to the characters’ flaws as well as delight in shock at the decisions we consider ourselves above. Our newfound joy in these depictions has also grown to encompass comedy. Throw the word “Bad” in front of any noun, and boom you’ve got yourself a hit movie: Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa, and the upcoming Bad Words. This irreverent subgenre provides shock value in a culture that doesn’t bat an eye at not one, not two, but three Human Centipede films, and allows our inner twistedness to secretly relish Kenny Powers cursing at a small child. At the end of the day everyone likes a bad boy.
One facet of this dark comedy has yet to hold any allure for me, though: the oh-so-cynical depiction of the frustratingly terrible people that compose the twenty-something hipster population of Brooklyn. Girls has infuriated me to the point that I can actually fart on command if you mention Lena Dunham, but perhaps the complete lack of relatable male characters is a much deserved taste of my own medicine that women receive when they tune in to literally any other show on television. Rick Alverson’s The Comedy left me feeling confused on whether it was myself or Alverson and star Tim Heidecker who had missed the irony in that indulgence. However, with the natural chemistry of its two stars Bridey Elliot and Clare McNulty, and most importantly actual laughs beyond the fact that these characters are horrendous individuals, Fort Tilden is a sharply crafted and well-paced debut for directing duo Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers.
In a way, Fort Tilden is the female response to bromance comedies like I Love You Man and every Apatow associated film ever. In Girls I find the backstabbing, selfishness and petty actions of the characters at the expense of their friendships exhausting because they still act shocked and dismayed when one inevitably fucks the other over, like they forget that ultimately they’ll each do whatever benefits themselves best. But in Fort Tilden, while there is no doubt that Harper and Allie act downright abhorrent to each other (particularly Harper, who walks all over Allie to get whatever she wants) there is an acceptance there. They both know the other’s shortcomings and recognize their respective positions in the friendship. Even when tensions bubble over and all the hurtful truths come spilling out, the rift is short lived. Where this could have felt stale and disingenuous, stars Bridey Elliot and Clare McNulty’s skillful balance and ability to play off each other elevate the film to the examination of a friendship that feels very real; maybe not the best friendship, maybe a very flawed one, but one that feels authentic nonetheless. That authenticity captures a weird kind of womance that is severely lacking in today’s cinema, where more often than not female characters are pitted against each other, often solely for the attention of a male. The opening sequence of the film, which features Harper and Allie sending each other discreet text messages shit talking the obnoxious musical performance of their friends, highlights the working back and forth that provides the heart of the film, and produces the biggest laughs.
Fort Tilden looks like an indie movie, and I mean that in the most flattering sense. Its presentation is straightforward and simplistic, but tediously constructed and carefully honed. Directors Violet-Bliss and Rogers do a phenomenal job making the film look equal parts concise and small-scaled, and crisp and professional. The supporting cast featues a “blink and miss it” cameo by Reggie Watts, and Jeffrey Scaperrotta and on the rise star Griffin Newman as the boys Harper and Allie are headed to the beach for. Although relegated to just a small role, Newman is someone to watch for with his IMDB roster crammed full of interesting and diverse projects, such as his ongoing contributions to The Chris Gethard Show, and his casting in John Mulaney’s resurrected series. Newman’s comedic timing is on display from the get go of the pair’s first meeting with Harper and Allie.
Fort Tilden has done the impossible. Through a combination of meticulously planned pacing, fortuitous casting, and a genuine heart Fort Tilden has succeeded in my actual enjoyment of a millennial Brooklyn comedy. The film doesn’t conclude with a heartwarming story of growth or newfound kindness, but instead a literal shoulder shrug of acceptance of who Harper and Allie are. These people are kind of awful, but god damn it if they aren’t also hilarious. More than just a well made film, the success of Fort Tilden should serve as a launching pad to expect big things from the talents of all those involved.
We originally saw Fort Tilden at SXSW, but if you’re in New York, you can catch the film at the brand new Vulture Film Festival this weekend.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to do film reviews. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy