This deeply lovable ode to ‘70s dramas looks at the love of a hipster for his terminally ill pocket hamster, resulting in a film that's precisely all that you'd hope for but far more adorable than you can imagine. A picaresque jaunt through the California Bay Area, the story begins when Richard (Richard Vallejos) learns his hamster, Etienne, has cancer and must be put down. He leaves work to spend as much time as they can together before his pet's little life ends. One wishes the box office for this film could be greater, as it's perfectly suited for kids old enough to handle the macabre pretext and adults who remember the ‘60s/'70s aesthetic director Jeff Mizushima imitates throughout. While numbers may be low, fondness won't be.
Richard is as hipster as the languid, unmoored twentysomethings with whom he lives and works. He confusedly but happily takes a job as a secondary janitor at an appropriately period hotel in North Beach, but quickly gets the news his dwarf hamster has been "dieting" due to a tumor. He sets the date to euthanize him per the vet's directions, but wrestles with the decision greatly. When he tells his friend her response is "Oh, when he dies, I'll buy you a new hamster." which is precisely the sort of skating, sweet statement that stabs him deepest. Even his roommate's petulant underwear romping, or dancing to bad music with his almost-girlfriend isn't as inconsiderate. It's in those moments that Etienne!'s tone is most sharply felt, because in granting the protagonist status as the central character the aesthetic (both narratively and visually) only allows for surface tensions. We presume these characters inner states and the extensive sunspots and awkward zooms and focus pulls keep our attachment at a steady remove; that's what they're designed for, after all. And it's just in these pointed moments of accidental rejection, or the softened moments of almost communion between characters, that Etienne! finds its clearest expressions.
After heading out on the road, Richard finds a stranded musical duo (indie band Great Northern), which brings us as close to self-conscious as we get, and I write this about a film that features director Caveh Zahedi (I am a Sex Addict) employing a pinhole camera. What allows the film to hold up in many directions is that it fully commits to the aesthetic, and while this is a self-conscious aesthetic it's so old and fraught with nostalgic undertones it's sincerity becomes overwhelming. Richard is a hipster who knows no irony and his deeply felt emotional struggles are never interrogated the way those of a protagonists in more modern fair would be. We have no privileged view into his experiences but his feelings, however legible, are protected by this distance, and his character-identity is made more resolute as a result. Granted, none of this would be at issue if this retro-hip ‘70s film was also telling a retro-hip ‘70s story, but the reality is this is a film made during an era of comic man-children, when stories about random, aberrant attachment and social estrangements are validated by comedy or invasive dramatics. That's not happening here; in a way it feels like we're seeing an origin point in the trajectory of the modern protagonist, and that origin spot was beautiful and precious, but too small to roam with the big dogs.
Contact: Giacun Caduff, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cast: Richard Vallejos, Caveh Zahedi, Courtney Halverson, David Chien and Megan Harvey
Director/Screenwriter: Jeff Mizushima
Producers: Giacun Caduff, Joel Moore and Kurt Schemper
Running time: 88 min
Release date: September 3 NY