Dance Party, USA

Dance Party, USA

Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA is not quite a feature but not quite a short at the unusual run time of 106 66 minutes. It’s a contemporary verite style film that fits well with the work of Andrew Bujalski and Ramin Bahrani. It was shot on location on DV with quite a small budget and a very non-professional cast. The film focuses on Gus, a 17 year old living in a Portland, OR suburb and addresses a two or three day period in the summer in which he addresses something rather terrible that he did in his past. In doing so he makes a connection with Jessica, an acquaintance of his who, with her quiet bearing and her ability to see through Gus’ bullshit, is able to elicit from Gus a sort of confession, not just of his actions, but of who he is and who he is trying to be.

Katz has an excellent ear and eye for the way his characters, late high school age inhabitants of a white, middle class Portland suburg, would talk and react to the world. In a scene where Gus and his friend Bill are sitting in Bill’s bedroom drinking bottles of Coors at noon, Bill relates the anecdote that he encountered a woman on the train that day who was severely bleeding from her nose. Gus reacts as if Bill is telling him about something he saw on TV or in a movie, expressing no interest in what caused the injury, whether the woman was all right or what Bill did. And Bill ends the story quickly by relating that everyone else on the train was staring at her…then the conversation changes. This sort of detached, emotionless reaction from both teens struck me as quite genuine. The scene of the older boy ineptly using the temptation of pot to hit on Jessica as she looks away and he doesn’t get the hint. The crassness of the way Gus and Bill talk about women and sex, covering their own inexperience and lack of confidence with words like “clit” and “bitch.”

The most impressive scene of the film is also the central scene, in which Gus’ confronts the girl involved in the aforementioned incident from Gus’ past. Katz’s displays a wonderful sense for pacing and how words can convey so much more than their surface meaning. It’s never quite clear whether or not the girl recognizes who Gus is and they dance around the central issue in such a way that, while the issue and situation itself is not broached and nothing is addressed head-on, it’s clear that in just 10 minutes and with few words something has been resolved for both individuals. This scene also demonstrates the limitations of addressing heavy emotional subject matter with amateur actors. The scene relies on the facial expressions, tension of muscles, pauses and tenor of voice that it demands a cast of higher caliber than Katz acquired, but I was quite impressed by Katz’s ability to direct such nuanced performances out of his actors.

The other real drawback of Dance Party, USA (and the one that is the most unforgivable) is Katz’s use of the cliched technique of the dialogue-free montage shown over emotional piano music, clearly meant to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of Gus and Jessica and the emotional power of the experience they shared. It feels contrived and lends no depth to the film or to the characters Katz portrays.

Overall I was quite impressed with this film. As small and short as it is I definitely felt that there was not quite enough story for it to be fleshed out much more than it was and the note that it ends on is pretty right-on. It’s debt to previous films of this genre, particularly Larry Clark’s Kids, is quite apparent but Katz is able to do something quite interesting and effective nonetheless. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that enjoys small, unambitious and quiet slice of life films and, hey, if you’re not into it you’ve only lost 1 hour of your life anyhow, right?

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