Some films are scary -- truly frightening -- not by virtue of suspense or things that go bump in the night to jump out at the viewer, but because the daily horror of reality they depict strikes much too close for comfort. Standing by Yourself is such a work.
Originally presented as a twenty-minute senior thesis at Brooklyn's Pratt Art Institute, this claustrophobic sixty-five minute effort is trimmed from a final sixty hours' mini DV footage, plus some 2,000 feet on 8 mm. Reportedly done on a shoestring $1,000 budget, directed, produced and edited by Josh Koury, who also did "principal cinematography," the film is basically a raw, handheld home movie detailing the purposeless and self-destructive lives of alienated sixteen-year-olds in Clinton (pop. 2,238), near Utica in touristy-beautiful upstate New York.
Filmed in muted color, occasionally alternating with effective, grainy black-and-white for soundless non-motion close-up mug shots that reveal their subjects' inner lives like Vermeer's la vraie vérité, Standing by Yourself is chilling in its objective portrait of dreary, lost, twenty-first century America.
While there are a few humorous lines and moments, largely the boys' gross-out obscenity-laced dialogues near the beginning and before the audience can appreciate the depressingly grim reality of it all, twenty-four-year-old Koury's film soon reveals that Adam Koury (the filmmaker's real-life brother) and Josh Siegfried and company are not modern Huck Finns innocently pointing up the sins of a society whose values are hypocritical and corrupt. Nor is this your standard tale of adolescent bonding threatened by an outsider, Adam's later new friend, the "straight" J.J. Rather, the camera unsparingly reveals the dark, dysfunctional and, one suspects, not so very untypical underbelly of our society, particularly the torn-apart families (including the director's own) and resentful, lost youth of our stultifying small towns (and large cities).
Those with just-grown sons and daughters barely beyond their teens can only sigh and be thankful that (we hope) our own offspring have somehow escaped this frenetic -- worse, purposeless -- descent into racist slogans, drugs, alcohol, profanity, a supposed rebellion against it knows not what or how but that must finally lead to destruction as well as individual and social anarchy. Parents, the police, judicial officials, and well-meaning teachers can only mouth the usual platitudes concerning such disturbing behavior.
The very title, Standing by Yourself, hints at both isolation and traditional concepts of growing up, standing on one's own feet, though ironically these teenagers will never have the opportunity to become adults in the national Norman Rockwell mold. Their aim, if any, is to tear down, to deconstruct rather than advance toward any definable finite goal of job, family, house, two cars. (One wonders who owns the car in which the boys are constantly captured by the camera.) And the director himself is "isolated" in the sense of being theoretically objective, even when recording his broken-legged epileptic older brother and his manless and helpless mother; but the latter finally scolds his stance of dispassionate observer, and only then does he film himself, a brief instant of blank gazing into the creator's own lens.
Form here nicely imitates content, chaos encloses chaos. There is no plot in the usual sense, just a slice of lives whose end is to become stupefied enough to ignore bleak reality. There is no normal character development from A to Z, or even to B, as we realize simply that we see deeper into anguished nothingness. The unsteadiness of handheld camera views, sometimes purposely diagonal or upside-down, reflects the turbulent but directionless inner selves of the characters and their lives.
"Tomorrow," Josh Siegfried remarks, "never comes," followed by a perfunctory "I love you" to his mother after she argues but then counts out ten crumpled dollar bills, for the movies and more junk food. Unlike his namesake Josh the Director but like so many others, he has given up trying to find his way in a heartbreaking, heartless world that itself seems to have lost its way. The film's characters ham it up, pile it on for the semi-documentary style camera -- they are not acting but truly stoned on fleeting celebrity and drug cocktails -- and there is no hope, no direction, no resolution: Koury's unsparing art mirrors life, and one must shudder for the future.
(Released by Cheapo Films; not rated by MPAA.)