JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Uptown (Director: Brian Ackley) - July 6, 2009


4.5 4.5
75 min.

A romantic gem

Brian Ackley’s first feature is a beautifully crafted, superbly acted film that explores the symptoms, realities and emotions of a doomed but unstoppable relationship. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with “the wrong person” will savour this story seen through such a thoughtful and understanding eye.

Co-written with the protagonists (Chris Riquinha as single-filmmaker Ben, Meissa Hampton as newlywed-dog-walker Isabel—late of Paris, so intriguingly reminiscent of Isabelle in The Dreamers, cross-reference below), it is little wonder that the scenes work so well: every line—scripted or improvised—comes from the same artistic trust so buy-in from the actors is virtually guaranteed.

The opening third of the film is a masterpiece of shot making (Ryan Andrew Balas, camera operator). With just two on-screen, there’s the danger of visual boredom as the back-story unfolds. Ackley and his crew ably avoid any spec of tedium by framing every scene differently (from medium-shot pans in the restaurant while Ben plies his potential leading lady with questions to tighter, over-the-shoulder views when it’s Isabel’s turn to delve deep, then a framed-by-a-window, seen-through-the-glass tea shop sequence) and taking advantage of sound: present (with honestly rendered dialogue) or absent (the aural void being artfully filled thanks to Dayva Segal’s compositional skills). The only blemish is the follow-along street frames where the words could never have come from the captured lips.

Just when one wonders if the entire film will be left entirely to on-screen duets from the initially reluctant lovers, Ben’s roommate, Kasheem (Derek McAllister) bursts into the production with loud, funky charts but also an all-important persona to provide his buddy’s fears, thoughts and soliloquy with a sympathetic ear.

As actors, Riquinha and Hampton make an endearing couple who convincingly reveal themselves gradually (good and bad—Ben’s confession of a past adultery is a narrative tour de force, wordlessly matched by Isabel’s body language as it shifts from discomfort to admiration), creating one new question for every old that’s answered. When—inevitably—their largely innocent liaisons are discovered by the poker-playing husband, Morgan, the worst happens: husband and wife, after having their first real chat in months, opt to “work on things.”

Miraculously (but thanks again to the script and the stars) the litany of clichés that follow (e.g., “that’s a good thing … so that’s that—let’s be friends”) doesn’t produce been-there sighs or sarcastic guffaws. Both characters—from the charmingly awkward first encounter, which includes an attempt to balance a salt shaker and the extraordinary revelation that we “both like good music”—have established unshakeable credibility as they dig deep into a shared catalogue of knowing looks and slight bits of business (every apparently unconscious scratch or reconfiguring of long curly locks is not coincidental) and…subliminally…establish their common vulnerability. Merci mille fois!

One totally surprising revelation near the closing moments scores another narrative victory. Nothing finer, then, than to strike up the band (“Be What You Imagine” given an invigorating performance by Rosemary’s Garden) and go back into the real world, armed with the knowledge “just me and my choices” might get us through another day. JWR

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