Friday, February 3, 2017

Welcoming Departure (2012)

Director: Scott Ballard                                      Writer: Scott Ballard
Music: The Blue Cranes                                   Cinematography: Dave Rosenblum
Starring: Thomas S. Campbell, Eve Pryce, Rachael Perrell and Dave Morales

Welcoming Departure is the feature debut of Portland writer-director Scott Ballard. Getting his start in feature work as a cinematographer, he did some impressive camera work on the otherwise stilted How the Fire Fell in 2010, but already had amassed a substantial resume writing and directing short films prior to that. The theme of this film is a tired one, the elderly person who makes an impact on the life of a younger one, and Ballard is clearly intent on finding something new to say with it, though it’s difficult to know if he succeeds. It’s an odd film in many ways. While there are a lot of things to like about it, they don’t really seen to fit together very well. For the first nine minutes of the movie Tom Campbell seems perfect for the part, but as soon as he opens his mouth it’s clear he’s way more intelligent than his character first appears. The jazz soundtrack, which includes some terrific music by the Portland quintet The Blue Cranes and the Alan Jones Sextet, almost seems as if it belongs in a different film. And there are certain ways of handling a story like this by directors like Alexander Payne or the Coen Brothers, but Scott Ballard chooses to go in a very different direction. The subdued nature of the telling is far more reminiscent of Some Days are Better Than Others by Matt McCormick, but Ballard’s screenplay lacks the symbolic underpinning of that film, and the stakes for his characters don’t seem nearly as high.

The film opens at breakfast time, with Thomas S. Campbell dropping the needle on a jazz LP, eating Cheerios and opening his mail at the kitchen table before heading off to work in his station wagon. Campbell works as the night janitor at the public library. After his shift he meets Dave Morales and the two have a real breakfast at a diner before Campbell goes back home. The next day is just like the last except he brings a letter from home with him, which he opens during his lunch. Apparently a relative of his has died and he is one of the beneficiaries. It’s nine minutes into the film before there is any dialogue, at breakfast with Morales. Campbell thinks the letter is a scam because he doesn’t have any relatives, but calls the lawyer when he gets home and the next day is told to pick up a package at the airport. Campbell is decidedly low-tech guy who prefers vinyl to digital, and doesn’t own a computer, and the scene where he attempts to navigate an automated phone system is amusing if familiar. One morning when Morales doesn’t show up, he goes to the restaurant alone and talks to waitress Rachael Perrell. The conversation is intended to show the viewer how bland his life is, and sets up the reappearance of Perrell later on. Oh, the package at the airport? It keeps him awake wondering what it is and so he finally drives out to pick it up. It’s an old Norwegian woman named Odessa played by Eve Pryce.

The results should be predictable, but they’re not. Not unlike the episode on the phone, Campbell handles the crisis in his typically methodical fashion. Absent are the histrionics that a character like this would normally indulge in, or the obsessive-compulsive breakdown the viewer might expect. Instead, Campbell goes about his business of working the problem, gradually uncovering information about Pryce as well as exploring his own reaction to her presence in his life. The film is short, at barely over an hour, and it certainly could have benefitted from spending more time with the supporting cast, especially in the second half. That said, there are some very nice moments. One is the actual LP that Campbell is playing on his turntable. Even though the jazz on the soundtrack is provided by local Portland groups, the LP is a Blue Note album. It’s a small detail, but for the knowledgeable jazz fan it’s a nice one. Equally impressive is when Campbell goes through Pryce’s suitcase. The photo album, postcards and sweaters have a palpable feeling of authenticity to them, and when Campbell neatly arranges everything as he puts it back it’s quite touching. There’s also a nice moment at the coffee shop when Ballard keeps the camera on Pryce while Campbell and Morales talk about her, only her eyes moving in time with the conversation. It’s an economical technique, as it only requires one set up, but used judiciously it can be very effective as it is here.

Tom Campbell is solid in the lead role, intelligent and level-headed despite the curves he is thrown. Eve Pryce is a much better choice visually than the actress Ballard had on the original promotional materials, and she does a terrific job with no dialogue. While David Morales starts off as the typically goofy best friend, he becomes something else again when he meets Pryce and it would have nice to see more of him at the end. Rachael Perrell is absolutely riveting onscreen and it’s a shame that both she and Morales couldn’t have had more time to develop their characters in an additional twenty minutes that the story cries out for. And that’s probably the fatal flaw of the film: the screenplay. The cinematography and direction are solid, but the narrative simply doesn’t have time to gel. This may be a result of Ballard spending so much time working on short films, or it may be just a function of being his first feature. First features are notorious for weak screenplays. Welcoming Departure is certainly not a bad film, however, and as stated earlier there are things to admire and enjoy. Fortunately Ballard has made a second feature and the hope is that he will continue working in the long form and hone his considerable skills even more in the future.

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