The other week, my astute brother asked me a question: If hipsters were vampires, what would their garlic equivalent be?
I spent days contemplating possible answers, asking friends for their thoughts, careful to avoid any males in deep-diving V-neck Ts and females riding Dutch cruisers. In the end, the most logical answer came from a guy who removes the laces of his white canvas Keds. His speculation was that the question was in fact a moot point, his argument being that the hipster ethos is essentially to claim all forms of culture and corresponding plunder as their own.
The process of enlightenment required to enter the hermetic sanctuary that we on the outside are to suppose the adult not-so-hip hipster resides in, is a well-documented phenomenon in today’s independent cinema. Separating yourself from the herd is a virtuous endeavour, as we learn in Away We Go, not to mention what hard, fast-talking work it is to challenge social mores—not for the faint of wit, as Juno demonstrates.
For audiences who’d rather not leave the theatre feeling judged by characters conceived to seem manifestly superior to greater society, writer/director Matthew Bissonnette’s Passenger Side—recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival—is the refreshingly unaffected film to quell your private enmity for bearded independent dramas. Scruffy though the film’s two stars, Adam Scott and Joel Bissonnette, may look, and quippy though the dialogue is, the script’s underlining awareness of its characters’ nearsightedness keeps clear the fog of smug.
A story about the relationship between two estranged brothers, Passenger Side follows Michael (Scott) and Tobey (Bissonnette) on a road trip destined to lead to redemption for one brother and nothingness for the other.
A shadow of pessimism, the character of Michael struggles with having a 180 IQ, a mediocre career, and living in a world not of his own making, while younger brother Tobey, a one-time-actor, tries to salvage life and love post-rehab. Shut up in an old BMW, tripping across L.A. in search of Tobey’s one-that-got-away, the brothers’ hash out ego, past, and discontent.
Ping-ponging existential verse back and forth on the journey, each brother reveals the bias of his life’s perspective, and though clearly neither brother has it quite figured, it is Michael—the supposedly well-adjusted denizen of society—who seems to be all form and no function in the end.
“Michael’s character is quite young, even for a guy that’s sort of cerebral,” says the director. “He’s a little bit emotionally stunted, I find that with a number of artistic types of people that you run into. There’s sort of an idea of understanding a lot but through limited human interaction. The edges are still quite square, and I think [Michael] is kind of like that.”
As Bissonnette sees it, Michael’s angst is symptomatic of a generational narcissism, to which he does not subscribe. “’Come on, children, you’re acting like children. Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world,’” the director says, quoting a song off Wilco’s latest album. “It’s kind of an astute line. [They think] this is as bad as it gets, and I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s gonna get worse or it’s gonna get better. You’re gonna die and it’s gonna keep going, I guarantee it.’”
Bissonnette doesn’t buy into the apocalypse; it would assume too much self-importance. “I think there’s something narcissistic about believing in the apocalypse because you’re the exclamation point.”
Sitting across from the writer/director as he munches on a slice of peanut butter toast and talks about old Canadian hardcore bands, it’s hard to imagine pretence slipping into one of his scripts. A feat, notes Bissonnette, with any dialogue-based film. “I think in new film, people try to make a lot of dialogue movies, and people are sort of under the impression that if they just write ten pages of funny dialogue that that would be engaging enough.” Though he admits, “I think in this we tread the edge.”
Initially inspired by the dialogue-driven script of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, Bissonnette’s decision to add multiple stops along the brothers’ journey pulls the script away from that edge, removing Michael and Tobey from their esoteric debates (such as Hilary Swank vs. Marilyn Manson) and throwing them into scenery ripe for action. “Because this is my third film, I’m way more conscious about entertaining the audience,” says the director. “In my first movie, we did a thing where we shot a ten minute shot with two people talking, one shot … and then we watched it and we were like, ‘This is so fucking boring,’ but when we were doing it we were like, ‘This is so cool!’”
Music, too, had function, with Bissonnette avoiding the self-consciously cool soundtrack trap, opting for music to match the brown-and-orange hued L.A. cityscape. It’s unlikely we’ll be hearing an S.N.F.U., Dinosaur Jr., or a Guided By Voices diddy in an IPod or Volkswagen commercial anytime soon — something of the point. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘Look at us, we’re rad, like, we know about things,’” says Bissonnette of the music. “But what I do enjoy is if you have a film where the music is integral. It actually is existing in what they’re doing, like, say, in American Graffiti, or Dazed and Confused. That’s kind of what we’re aspiring to.”
While inspired by a variety of fictional sources, be it another film’s use of music or dialogue, Bissonnette’s personal life is not a working palette. Asked if the relationship between Michael and Tobey was based, even loosely, on his relationship with his brother Joel Bissonnette, who stars as Tobey in the film, the director sums up his moving-making career. “The only real thing we’re trying to create is a story we made up,” he laughs. “I think you always kind of borrow here or there from the real world, but I’m very interested in fiction. I’m not a documentary type of person.”
PASSENGER SIDE TRAILER:
PASSENGER SIDE’S TIFF PREMIER PARTY:
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