For my screening on the fourth night of the 12th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival, I managed to be pleasantly surprised by A Bag of Hammers. Going into the film, I was expecting to maybe have a good laugh at a simple comedy; however, I was delighted to see that the film not only accomplished having a comedic touch, but found very solid footing in balancing what turned out to be a comedic drama. This was a very good film that I was happy to have enjoyed deeply and I attribute many of the film’s charming qualities, such as its strong writing and dialogue, solid performances, and great chemistry between all of the actors, to that conclusion. While the film may reach a few points of being a tad too dark, with a story that is not entirely unpredictable, these minor issues hardly effect a film that is very well crafted and highly entertaining.
Alan: You wanna ding dong ditch a Mercedes that you stole from your ex-girlfriend on the day that her father was buried?
Ben: Yeah, I do. That’s what I wanna do.
The film stars Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig (who also co-wrote the screenplay) as Ben and Alan. The two are essentially adult misfits, who have specialized in thievery in order to get by in life. The main crime these two participate in is pretending to be a valet service outside of various locations, mostly funerals, only to then steal cars quite easily and turn them in to their crime boss of sorts, Marty (Todd Louiso), for quick cash. Ben and Alan live together on a property which has two separate living spaces. They rent out the other building a mother, Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her 12-year old son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), who have recently moved in, having been left stranded following Hurricane Katrina. In their spare time, when Ben and Alan aren’t ripping people off, they hang out at the breakfast diner that Alan’s sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), works at.
The story starts to develop as we learn more about Kelsey. Kelsey is not currently in the best of living situations, given that he must fend for himself for the most part, while his mother is out trying to find work or doing whatever else. Ben and Alan become aware of this and are eventually challenged with perhaps becoming more involved in Kelsey’s life than they ever intended. With others, including Mel and one of Kelsey’s teachers, Wyatt (Gabriel Macht), also wanting to help Kelsey, it may certainly take some growing up on Ben and Alan’s part in order to keep everything together and continue to deal with what life throws at them.
The strongest element about this film may be its chemistry between the actors. The film has to do a balancing act between being a comedy and a drama, which can easily backfire, but I think it is due to how well these characters bounce off of each other that the film manages to hold itself together all the way through. In particular, Sandvig and Ritter seem like they could have been friends forever (which is not actually case, I learned), as the two are playing best friends who can practically finish each other’s sentences. They have a charming nature that works well for them, especially as they continue to match laughs and wits with the other characters in the film.
This chemistry can of course be contributed to both the actors and the quality of the script. Co-written by Sandvig and the film’s director, Brian Crano, I really enjoyed the way this story played out and how these characters were written. The back and forth that occurred in the dialogue between characters for a lot of scenes always felt natural and the more emotional beats that occurred seemed to have emerged from the film’s story organically. The film was funny when it needed to be, but also had a good handle of being appropriately serious. One scene in particular features a monologue by Jason Ritter’s character, who just knocks it out of the park from a dramatic standpoint, while other scenes feature humorous interplay between the characters that continue to establish the film’s charming identity.
The performances are all solid in this film. I have already spoken of their chemistry, but Sandvig and Ritter are very good in their roles. An extra note should go to the way they play characters with a backstory that is never quite explained in full, but we can certainly gain a level of understanding as to where they have come from. Rebecca Hall is also quite good, seemingly able to have found a way to bounce around between films like The Town and smaller indie films like this one. She manages to fit right in with the boys on this film, further building on an already solid story. Carrie Preston, better known as the red-headed waitress, Arlene, on True Blood, has a tricky role, as her character could have easily been played too over-the-top or completely unlikable; but there is layer of helplessness that keeps her glued into reality. Finally, the young Chandler Canterbury manages to be everything an actor his age could hope to achieve. He is engaging without being cute and smart without seeming too annoyingly precocious.
For a film like this, which was not made for a lot of money, I was very happy with how well assembled it was as well. Shot on the Red Camera, the film looks quite good, as it has a little fun with evolving its style over the course of the story and also works in some nice tracking shots. Filmed in Burbank, California, I feel like enough attention was paid to the setting to have made a lot come from a little. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the very nice score by Johnny Flynn, who provides an easy going alternative vibe to the whole film.
While very enjoyable throughout, the only minor knock I have against the film is the way in which some of the darker elements are brought up. It is difficult to balance comedy and drama, as I have stated, and putting that to the test in certain scenes became a challenge that I feel wasn’t quite won in every case. That being said, seeing Hall wear a goofy waffle hat almost makes me not care about minor quibbles with the tone. I also had a very good idea of where this film was going, which is hardly an issue, because it is of course the journey that matters more than the destination, and I was very satisfied with moving along with the film.
A Bag of Hammers is very much a film that I hope many will get to see. It has all of the right kinds of charm and energy that one would hope for in an independent film from talented young filmmakers. While the film will eventually see a limited theatrical release, it is definitely one that should be picked up in whatever form is available to a wide audience. The spark within the cast is superb and the writing is clever and well done. Bringing in both comedy and drama, I was highly entertained throughout this film, which is all I ever ask for. The added bonus is how well crafted the film was and meaningful the relationships between the characters were. Surprised and delighted indeed.
Mel: So what happens when your luck runs out? Then what?
Watch the trailer for A Bag of Hammers here:
Click on the poster to visit the Newport Beach Film Festival website, and be sure to check back to Why So Blu throughout the week for more of my coverage of the festival.