Scruffy garage flick draws incisive, authentic portrait

Phillip the Fossil

on April 15, 2011 by John P. McCarthy
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Subtitled "The Life and Times of a Human Gutterball," Garth Donovan's winsomely profane and scruffy portrait of a small-town scumbag isn't for everyone. If you can't abide a protag who peddles steroids and likes to have sex with underage girls, or if guerilla-style cinematography and strobe-like editing makes you nauseous, then take a pass. But you'll be missing out on a micro-budgeted indie with multiple virtues, among them fidelity to its anti-hero and a rare storytelling verve born of a sense of economy and the ideal confluence of form and content. Alas, the question of attendance is moot unless you'll be in the vicinity of Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater where Phillip the Fossil begins a weeklong run that's unlikely to receive an enthusiastic reception from the hipster female demographic.

In the opening scene, the eponymous party animal (played by first-time actor Brian Hasenfus) cuts a deal whereby he'll supply steroids in exchange for an introduction to a 16-year-old girl he lusts after. The next thing we know, Phillip is sodomizing this willing girl in the cab of his pick-up truck. And this doesn't seem to be an atypical night for the 29-year-old landscaper, who spends his free time hanging out with high school kids in an exurban Massachusetts town from which the tank-top, reverse-baseball-cap-wearing youth longs to escape.

Phillip gained his "fossil" reputation by messing around with a 14-year-old; that incident plus his drug-dealing and general fondness for a good time have resulted in his legendary infamy and ubiquity. He uses people and is willing to be used by them. He isn't smart, articulate, handsome, or industrious, but you grow to like him anyway. He's capable of turning on the charm and isn't without empathy for his fellow man. It's also clear he's a survivor, a critical attribute in a milieu where drugs of all kinds (including alcohol in the constantly-swilled form of beer) are the accepted short-cuts to anything and everything you might want to achieve.

Driving to work after a bender, Phillip brushes his teeth and rinses with beer. His boss is pissed-off about his perpetual tardiness, particularly since he's a crew foreman. This enthusiastically-earned hostility, combined with Phillip's lack of purpose and general malaise, prompts him to contemplate starting his own business. It's summertime, and his pal Sully (James Killigrew), the varsity quarterback, is anxious to excel on the gridiron during his final season. This entails bulking-up, which is why he buys steroids from Phillip. Sully also dumps his girlfriend, prompting the jilted Summer (Angela Pagliarulo) to hook-up with Phillip in order to make him jealous. Triangular tensions rise and come to a head after a Facebook slander.

Meanwhile, Phillip's buddy Nick (Nick Dellaroca) returns from Iraq with a textbook case of PTSD that offers urgent counterpoint to Phillip's downward spiral. Phillip is too thick to see it at first, even after a tense pistol-waving episode, yet it unearths a glimmer of decency and caring in him. Whether it's enough to help Nick is another matter. A second redemptive opportunity for Phillip comes in the attractive form of Julie (Ann Palica), an old flame (his own age) who moves back to town after a divorce.

Writer/director Donovan's narrative achievement is to make the wastrel Phillip semi-likeable. Despite his ugly habits and appetites, he's mostly a threat to himself. And while his appeal to someone as relatively put-together as Julie might baffle many viewers, it's still possible to admire the fact Donovan doesn't betray him. Something else in Phillip's favor, and a quality that may suggest hidden depths: He takes a night off from partying and watches Hud. When he offers a positive appraisal, Summer disdainfully says she's never heard of Paul Newman.

Donovan's unassailable achievement is more on the technical side. Phillip the Fossil has a brisk narrative rhythm that perfectly fits his subject matter, lead character and DIY process (aside from wearing many production hats, he funded the movie by collecting recyclable cans and scrap metal). Context is provided with images rather than words, although two of Summer's friends function as a chorus during a few scenes by commenting on the action. Every aspect of the production is well-judged and serves to bolster the overall authenticity.

Because of its New England-setting and the interest in deeply flawed, working-class males approaching or in what should be the prime of their lives, PTF brings to mind The Fighter as well as Ben Affleck's The Town. It also treats a number of pertinent social themes such as the difficulty of returning from war, drug and alcohol abuse and adolescent sexual promiscuity.

Two of the movie's most telling moments involve Sully. In a surprising, quick-as-lightning scene that communicates volumes about modern teens, the girl he dropped Summer for unceremoniously dumps him. And, second, his high-school football coach evinces a chilling (and prevalent) hypocrisy while chastising Sully and a teammate for letting someone find out they're using performance-enhancing substances. It's easy to get depressed by much of the behavior depicted in Phillip the Fossil, yet the talents behind the picture are a cause for optimism. The last thing they appear to be is hypocritical.

Contact: Garth Donovan okbreathe@gmail.com
Cast: Brian Hasenfus, Nick Dellaroca, James Killigrew, Angela Pagliarulo, Ann Palica, Tom Sullivan and William DeCoff
Director/Screenwriter: Garth Donovan
Producers: Garth Donovan, Adam Roffman, Chris Sachs and Tom Sullivan
Genre: Drama
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 74 min.
Release date: April 15 NY

 

Tags: Brian Hasenfus, Nick Dellaroca, James Killigrew, Angela Pagliarulo, Ann Palica, Tom Sullivan, William DeCoff, Garth Donovan, Adam Roffman, Chris Sachs
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