There has been a lot of debate lately on what makes an independent film. Can an independent film be truly independent if there is a major movie star in it or has a several million dollar budget? Some say yes. Some say no. Then there are those movies no one would doubt as an independent film. The crew is extremely small, the technical equipment they are working with is not the highest quality, etc. These are the productions that rose up in a post-mumblecore world where people realized they did not necessarily need these things in order to tell the story he or she wanted to tell. So, now we get to Life in Color, which is a seriously independent movie stemming from the mind of writer-director-producer-star-editor Katharine Emmer, which capitalizes on everything this kind of approach to filmmaking can elicit.
The thing I look for most in a production like this is authenticity. Sometimes people try to overcompensate by being overly snarky, overly cutesy, and just plain annoying. I don’t want to see how cool you think you are. I want to see if you have something interesting to say. Emmer’s character Mary, a recently fired nanny struggling with depression, feels like a real person with a unique perspective on her inner demons. Pair her with Josh McDermitt‘s Homer, an out of work clown with his own set of issues, and the two are allowed to bounce off one another about their troubles in a funny way that never for a second feels false.
What brings them together is a children’s birthday party where he is entertaining and she is nannying. Both are canned for getting high off the side of the house. Feeling responsible, Homer offers Mary to stay with him for a bit if she doesn’t have anywhere to go. At first, she refuses, but going through her contacts and realizing she doesn’t really have anyone, she begrudgingly accepts the offer. Both end up broke and homeless, so they decide Homer should enter a stand up comedy contest, and they’ll split the award money.
A premise like this could easily be taken as very wacky. Mismatched roommates and one of them is a comedian/clown? That’s schticky gold right there. Thankfully, they never go that potentially unbearable route. The two may not actually get along with each other first, but they never disrespect one another. Neither one looks down on the other, as they know each has their own massive slate of problems. They organically grow together in a pairing you are rooting for with a dynamic that shifts, and never feel forced or unearned. Even though it might not be wacky, they are still funny people, and this is only elevated by Emmer and McDermitt’s performances. The two have an undeniable rhythm with one another that’s a joy to watch.
The film is not without its faults, though. Emmer as an editor could be persuaded to insert more reaction shots. Much of the film is shot fairly simply, in shot/reverse shot fashion. Not a bad decision for this story, but I think there’s a tendency to want to always show the person talking rather than the person listening.
The biggest issue I have is the climatic standup set. We see Homer struggle his way through telling a joke and being honest on stage throughout the whole film, and the final moments come across as a bit too polished. They feel like jokes he’s been molding for a long time rather than the emotional burst and spilling of honesty it’s supposed to be. It’s the only moment in the film that felt a bit phony, and it’s unfortunate it’s one of the bigger moments in the movie.
Even with those issues, Emmer has proven in her first effort behind the camera she knows what she wants to say and how to say it. She embraces her very low budget approach and uses it to tell something personal in a unique voice. It also acts as a great showcase for her and McDermitt as actors, who give nearly every moment some heft and humor. It’s not a perfect movie, with a climax that needs quite a bit of work, but it’s quite rewarding. Katharine Emmer is now on my list of people to look out for.