When Chuck Klosterman turned his prodigious talent as a pop culture essayist into his first all-fiction project, the 2008 novel “Downtown Owl,” fans of the writer were treated to some classic Klosterman obsessions (North Dakota, sports, the way where entertainment shapes us as human beings) in a distinctly new form. The unstable nature of Klosterman’s novel, which focuses on three very different citizens of tiny, fictional Owl, North Dakota, as they navigate small-town life before a huge blizzard, was not as compelling or entertaining as Klosterman’s other novel. books but there was a charm in her flow and in the feeling of him. In short: he was not a Great Klosterman’s effort, but it sure was a Interesting one.
More than a decade after its publication, the long-gestating film adaptation of Klosterman’s novel occupies similar territory: not great, but definitely interesting. And, just as the novel’s publication marked a new point in Klosterman’s career, so too “Downtown Owl,” the film marks a new step in the professional endeavors of co-directors (and longtime partners) Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe , who both make their directorial debut with this curious dramedy.
Rabe also stars in the film (Linklater adapts script; both produced), which is part of why the duo decided to turn Klosterman’s three-handed game into a more focused film, orienting most of the story around the new arrived from Rabe. Julia in the months before the January blizzard.
It’s a tough question: however electrifying Rabe’s performance may become, choosing to focus primarily on Julia’s experience and perspective removes much of our investment in Horace (Ed Harris) and Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein), to whom it was given equal weight in Klosterman’s novel. . Still, Rabe’s work here, as a messy, “unsympathetic” and deeply flawed character, is the best part of the film, a worthy anti-hero, well, if not rooting for, at least watched with full concentration.
Even those unfamiliar with the film’s source material will know how it plays out, as Linklater and Rabe open the film with a brief glimpse of the January 1984 blizzard that sweeps across Owl, forever affecting three key characters. Quickly, we flash back to September, when Julia ran into Owl, an outsider who is about to be immersed in this particular kind of small-town life. She’s taken a teaching job at the local high school to get away from her invisible husband, first attributing the short-term assignment to the pressures of the job, then making it clear that their relationship is pretty much dead, and when she’s not getting drunk on one of the local bars in the city, shows up hungover and out of it in his history lessons.
Linklater and Rabe rely on a few messy affectations to get their story going, including everything from the cute (an unnecessary animated sequence introducing the town) to the ridiculous (Rabe gliding down the high school hallway in a bizarre double tracking; use constant of a fisheye lens in wide-angle shots) to actually quite good ones (presentations to Julia’s students, including Mitch, revealing some serious truths in winking fashion). Mostly, it just takes a while to settle into itself, to get into a compelling, sensible rhythm.
Then again, this is also Julia’s experience as she tries to approach Owl’s life in fits and starts. She’s inundated with new friends and enemies, such as Vanessa Hudgens as fellow teacher Naomi (an almost unbearably squeaky and monotonous role in which the actress occasionally finds real sparks), Finn Wittrock as a smooth-talking coach with a secret, Harris as Welcoming Old Gentleman Horace and Henry Golding as former football star Owl Vance Druid. As Julia learns Owl’s form, so do we – and it’s not always pleasant, as Linklater and Rabe peel away from the layers of this particular city with gusto and uneasiness. If it sounds awkward, it is.
Julia remains the cracked lens through which we view all of this, an unreliable narrator with a warped sense of, well, just about everything. Gentle Horace offers a reprieve to confused Julia, heaping both home-cooked meals and home-cooked gossip on her, all the better to obscure what’s really going on in her own life. So warped is Julia’s sense of propriety that she fails to recognize how nefarious Coach Laidlaw (Wittrock) really is, nor how his various misdeeds have impacted a select group of sensitive students (including Rosenstein, Jack Dylan Grazer and Ariadne Jaffier). And she certainly can’t deal with her burgeoning obsession with Vance, which regularly reduces her to drunken hysterics. (At the end of the film, as Julia sobs feeling like she’s not done with her 20 years—despite her reaching 40—she feels like one of many story keys dangling and then being snatched away.)
In short (and in very reductive terms), no one in Owl is well, and the impending blizzard is just the next disaster to hit them. How Linklater and Rabe handle that dark truth can be baffling, leaning into some characters and situations while leaving others to wither, never quite acknowledging the darkness that plagues this place, and ultimately moving towards a wholly undeserved conclusion. . Klosterman’s vision of this tiny, isolated world has never been cleaner and neater, a lesson that didn’t translate into his cinematic companion. It’s a slice of life, certainly, but scarce what’s more.
“Downtown Owl” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. Sony will release it at a later date.