You probably haven’t seen this film because even though it got some pretty high-end awards and nominations (Michael Gilio, the director, won Best Director at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, and the whole film was nominated as Best Film at the same festival. Gilio was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as “someone to watch”, and the film as a whole won a special jury prize at the St. Louis International Film Festival), it did not receive distribution. Roger Ebert championed it really hard (read his review here), and included it in his Overlooked Film Festival of 2002. What does a guy have to do to get distribution in this joint?
The wonderful Charles Taylor breaks down what he thinks is wrong with the whole independent film distribution system here, and he uses Kwik Stop as the primary example of what has happened to so-called “independent” film-making in this country. He makes a pretty strong case. The fact that Kwik Stop garnered so much attention – internationally as well as domestically – not to mention being praised to the hilt by Roger Ebert, the most well-known film critic in the United States, mattered little in the system as it stands. And there’s something seriously wrong with that. Please go read Charles’ piece. It’s a terrific review of Kwik Stop as well, and manages to capture some of the special weirdness that is this movie.
Thankfully, Kwik Stop has been released on DVD so anyone can see it now, but without anyone even knowing what it is, how does it stand a chance?
And that’s why I’m here.
Kwik Stop does not re-invent the wheel, but it is more important how you tell a story than what story you want to tell. The film has much to recommend it: an insightful script full of surprises (you think it’s going one way and then, it most decidedly does NOT go that way), fantastic acting by the 4 leads (and everyone else in the film), luscious lonely cinematography, reminiscent of Paris Texas (the cinematographer was David Blood), a fondness for its flawed characters, a willingness to go for the big gestures (no obsession with “kitchen-sink reality” stuff which can often make a film feel cautious and safe), and characters who seem to be mysteries even to themselves. Whatever is happening here, you want to keep watching it.
I feel I should disclose before going any further that Michael Gilio (who wrote the screenplay, directed it, and also starred in it) is an ex-boyfriend of mine, and we’re still really good friends and Mickey Rourke devotees (here is just one of many examples. He was also a “correspondent” for me when the Mickey Rourke Festival was happening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.). So I have history with the man. I hope you will not discount my opinion of Kwik Stop because of this fact; it is a special and rare little film, and deserves to be seen.
Filmed in 18 days in Chicago, Kwik Stop tells the story, mainly, of DiDi (played beautifully by Lara Phillips), a teenage runaway, and Mike (or Lucky, the ridiculous stage name he has given himself – played by Michael Gilio). They meet out in front of a Kwik Stop, on the industrial and bleak outskirts of Chicago. She has nowhere to go, and it seems, at first, like he has major places to go (although we see him shoplifting toothpaste at the Kwik Stop). He informs her, within 2 seconds of talking to her, that he is on his way to Hollywood, to be an actor. The genius of this film is that it immediately holds Lucky’s dreams to be suspect. We know, somehow, that Mike’s goals (sorry, can’t validate your stupid stage name, bro) are a lot of smoke and mirrors. But HE believes. And strongly. So okay, fine, we watch him lie, and talk a big game and wonder what will come of it. Gilio, as director, does not hold Mike, his character, in contempt. There’s something weirdly vulnerable about the guy. It’s not easy to immediately brush him off as just another stupid dreamer that we can laugh at and roll our eyes over his naivete. More is going on here than meets the eye.
Charles Taylor writes in his essay on Kwik Stop:
It’s easy to get fooled by the surface of Kwik Stopâthe semi-deadpan tone to some scenes; the debt to road-movie iconography-you think that you’ve seen its like before. It takes a while to realize that this is a road movie in which nobody goes anywhereâat least nowhere they want to go. That may sound like a hipster device for defusing audience expectation a la early Jim Jarmusch (or, as Jarmusch did, making fun of having any expectations at all), but in Gilio the ironist is trumped by the romantic humanist. Kwik Stop doesn’t deny the dreariness of its settings: the diners, convenience stores, sleazy bars, seedy hotel rooms trying not to look seedy. Yet, Gilio never makes you feel as if you’re trapped in the dinginess. He can see the tacky beauty of a mirrored ball above a motel bed or a mobile of stars and planets above a makeshift crib. Gilio refuses to ridicule his characters for dreaming of the stars. He’s one of those rare directors who can call his characters on the lies they tell themselves and still show them affection.
DiDi immediately sets her sights on Mike, and invites herself to come along to Hollywood with him. He agrees, reluctantly at first, trying to keep his cool and his power, saying, “Are you ready to leave NOW? Because I’m leaving NOW.”
Ebert writes, in his review:
At this point, maybe 10 minutes into the story, we think we know more or less where the movie is going: It’ll be a road picture. We are dead wrong. “Kwik Stop,” which never quite gets out of town, blindsides us with unexpected humor and sadness, and is one of the unsung treasures of recent independent filmmaking.
Off the two strangers go, headed for “Hollywood”. The way they both say the word “Hollywood” you can tell it isn’t a real place to them, it’s more of an idea, a mythical mirage on the horizon. It’s like saying “Jupiter” or “The Emerald City”. It’s a strange thing to watch two people who commit so fully to something we, out there in the dark, know is just an illusion. The whole first half-hour of the movie is filmed like this: the two are in a dream-state, the kind of dream-state we are in when we first meet someone new. Everything seems magical (the motel room they stay in has a glimmering disco ball and rotating stars of light on the wall). It feels like a road movie, in the grand tradition of road movies, but what would a road movie be like when the characters never quite make it out of town? Not because there are physical or other actual obstacles … but because there are emotional obstacles, holding them back? This is the territory we are in with Kwik Stop, but Gilio doesn’t show his hand too early in the script. He holds a lot back. And slowly, as the mysterious scenes unfold, scenes that never bring us from A to B, scenes that never tell us ALL that we need to know, we realize that we aren’t in a road movie at all. There are the same highways, and sunsets, and motels … but nobody is going anywhere. What are the references? Badlands, for sure, and others … but if we are expecting the young lovers to go on a killing spree, we are also sorely mistaken.
DiDi and Mike have a meandering conversation after getting stoned in the magical disco-ball ratty motel. He wants to be an actor, it is the only thing that has ever mattered. As they talk, stars of light circle over their faces:
Dreams made manifest and shimmering just by talking about them!
A key scene is when DiDi and Mike (after breaking into a house to steal some money for their road trip) stop off at a diner on their way out of town. This is almost an hour into the film, so we already know this is no regular journey. They’re still in the Chicago zip code, for God’s sake. Mike says, after they rob the house, “I’m hungry – you hungry? Let’s go get something to eat.” They go to a diner.
I’ll let Ebert comment on this scene, because he says it better:
Mike takes Didi to a diner for a meal, where a waitress named Ruthie (Karin Anglin) greets them with a strangely skewed attitude. Watch the way Gilio introduces mystery into the scene and then resolves it, getting humor out of both the mystery and the solution. The diner scene suggests strangeness deep in Mike’s character: He doesn’t need to go to Los Angeles since he stars in his own drama, and doubles back to be sure he hasn’t lost his audience.
Kwik Stop is not about its plot, although there are events, and things do indeed happen. Kwik Stop is really about the dramas we create for ourselves, especially when we are young. Adventures are only as good as their obstacles. Without obstacles, where is the drama, the struggle, the Henry Miller-esque thrashing about against the void of indifference? (The character of Mike idolizes Henry Miller and Tropic of Cancer). Ruthie (Mike’s girlfriend, played by Karin Anglin in a lovely performance) wants none of this drama: she’s in love with Mike, she does not understand his callous behavior. Wasn’t he supposed to be gone? Why is he still in town? And who is the ratty teenage girl with him? How could he do this? Doesn’t he know how much I love him, and how hard it was to let him go?
There’s a mirror-effect in the differnt story-lines. We have four main characters: Mike, DiDi, Ruthie, and Emil. Emil is a sad-sack drunk DiDi befriends in a dive bar (played by a fantastic actor, Rich Komenich). Scenes repeat themselves, from couple to couple, only with different energies, different depths.
Later, Ruthie and Mike (they obviously, you can tell, had a deep relationship, of real substance – a nice choice by Gilio in his screenplay) talk about dreams, too. She’s more practical, but in a way, she’s even more of a dreamer than DiDi, because she is willing to let the love of her life walk away, if it means he’s going for his dreams. She thinks he’s awesome. You get that, in scene after scene. She knows him better than DiDi does, so his bullshit is treated with firmness and yet also tenderness. The true price of actually being KNOWN by someone. She does not belittle him. Or emasculate him. But when he’s cruel to her, as he often is? She lets him have it.
But the little lies he’s telling to himself, the poseur bullshit he assumes – in order to “armor up” and face the world … she leaves that alone. She doesn’t tear him down. It would be very easy to tear this guy down. The guy’s license plate is HOT SHOT, mkay? His name is Michael and he has re-named himself Lucky. He is the star of a movie in his own head. But Ruthie is gentle with this side of Mike. She lets that part of him alone.
What IS driving Lucky? We never really know. Does he have any acting experience? Or is he just a movie buff, who wants to live in a Scorsese picture, or a Tarantino picture? What is he running from? Why doesn’t he just go to “Hollywood”? What is keeping him driving around in circles? Everyone I know who has seen the movie has to talk about it afterwards, and people take sides, put forth theories, disagree on motives, they like DiDi, they hate DiDi, they like Ruthie, they dislike Ruthie … It’s that kind of movie. You want to judge everyone. You want everyone to start treating each other better. We judge these people. They’re easily judge-able. But Gilio doesn’t. He just shows them, and shows what they do.
There are a million moments that I love in this film:
— The dryly humorous guy who works at the bus station. We only see him twice. He nails his two scenes, they are lovely bookends.
— Emil’s visit to DiDi in “juvie”, when he tells her all that he has lost. I love the sickly green light on his face, and the palpable suffering in his eyes.
— I love the moment when Mike takes Ruthie out to a movie (you know, because he never quite leaves town) and starts to bitch about how the actor playing the lead role was terrible. You can tell that Mike is smart, he knows what makes a good movie, he has good taste … but … does that make him a good actor? Ruthie asks him, “Okay, so how would you have played the scene?” And then Mike does the scene from the movie they just saw, all serious actor-man, with a gesturing cigarette, and tough intense eyes … and it has the funniest mixture of bullshit and charm. Maybe it’s just because I know so many actors, and this is how we talk … there’s a familiarity to that kind of lingo … we’re not assholes, you know. We understand the craft itself … and to outsiders we sound ridiculous, but from the inside, we are not ridiculous at all. And Ruthie’s response to Mike’s “acting” is lovely, you get why the two were a couple. She doesn’t laugh in his face at his big movie-star-in-his-own-mind moment. She supports him. Even when he’s showing off his acting chops in potentially laughable moments like this:
It takes a strong loving woman to look at something like that and not burst into laughter. Like: dude. Are you for real?
Notice: there’s a glimmering star there, too, like the stars floating through the air in the motel room, but here it’s different. There’s a sadness in this scene. Because Ruthie knows, somehow, that she doesn’t “have” him. And will she ever? Where IS he?
The effectiveness of the film, however, is not in its plot, or in its resolution. It is in the journey itself. It is in the memories it brings up in me, the audience member: of being young, and foolish, full of dreams not based on reality at all, but it’s the fun of dreaming that you don’t want to let go of.
Charles Taylor again:
The interchanges between Gilio and Phillips, and later between Phillips and Rich Komenich as the alcoholic widower Emil, are amazing. They have the humor and melancholy of people standing next to one another yet communicating via crossed wires. Gilio is sensitive to the rhythms of performance, allowing his actors space and time to develop scenes, and smart enough to treat himself as just one part of the show. Phillips, who can scrunch up her face like a kid or look weary beyond her years, gives one of the most accomplished and unheralded performances of the last 10 years. By all rights, Didi should be annoying, with her sudden bursts of energy and the self-conscious little-girl squeal that sometimes creeps into her voice. As Phillips plays her, we can sense the brains behind her Betty Boop affect. You know she’s going to wise up soon, and you can sense how she’s trying to delay that inevitability. And, as Emil, Rich Komenich uses his bulk as the baggage of sorrow, and nothing is sadder than the smile that occasionally lights up his face. It puts the rest of his existence – a good man killing himself by increments – into relief.
Everyone’s a tiny bit crazy here. They are not crazy because Gilio thinks that makes them interesting, or quirky. They’re crazy because dreamers are often a little bit crazy. And men who have had their dreams shattered, like Emil, are often crazy. Hope is a strange thing in the world of Kwik Stop. It’s not that different from fantasy. And yet the characters are not framed tragically, a la Requiem for a Dream, another movie about dreamers. These characters, in Kwik Stop, are filmed with fondness, and a kind of baffled affection. We wonder why they do what they do sometimes. Nobody’s a realist in Kwik Stop. Even Ruthie is willing to step into the fantasy, if that is what it will take to keep her man. Kwik Stop is a world of dreams deferred. And, when you get right down to it, it’s a road movie. That never gets off the road.
Kwik Stop should have been seen by a larger audience. It deserved better.