90’s independent films give a different kind of vibe from the small-budget movies of today. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the feeling of ‘newness,’ of being the first to do something (of course movies were being made outside of big budget studios before 1990, but there seemed to be a big boom in ordinary schmoes who weren’t big name filmmakers picking up a camera and making something). Indies then had less of a feeling of precalculation, less of a sense of ‘hey, we’re working with small actors and a low budget, but put in some well-worn tropes and we’ll have a guaranteed hit.’ Films back then were really out there. And, hey, there’s something I really like about that.
So, while past-trippin to the 90’s (which, admittedly, I don’t remember that well, I turned six in 2000) I rented Tom DiCillo’s very odd buddy comedy “Box of Moonlight,” starring a young (I mean, young young) Sam Rockwell and John Turturro, who pretty much looks the same to me, for better or for worse. Turturro plays Al Fountain, an uptight and lonely electrical engineer whose relationship with his wife (Annie Corley) is low on sizzle.
Al is having the king of all midlife crisis’, in which he actually has visions of things going backward- coffee pouring itself back into the pot, kids riding bikes backwards- in the way he desperately wishes he could. Nevertheless, Al doesn’t magically turn back the clocks and become younger (ain’t that a funny thing?) and can’t seem to get out of his slump. One day Al’s contract gets canceled and he tells his wife he’s still working the job, then bales to a rundown lake and vacation spot from his childhood.
On the way back home, he almost hits a strangers car on the road. This stranger turns out to be Kid (Sam Rockwell,) a gregarious, barely-functioning precursor to the sovereign citizen, living off the grid and running a oddment-selling business in a broken down backwoods trailer. Kid convinces Al to get him home, then finagles him (not by the powers of force, but by persuasion and a little coercion) to spend a few days with him at his decaying pad.
Kid’s home is a man-child recluse’s paradise. Every day Kid gets up whatever time he wants, has a breakfast of cookies dipped in milk, and goes skinny dipping in the lake. He has no responsibilities, no worries except for maybe food sources and the paranoid fear of the government tracking him down. Kid is socially hopeless, outgoing, flirty, and friendly, but his optimism is only matched by peoples’ contempt for him.
By most peoples’ standards, Kid would be delusional, or at least a borderline mental defective. By the movie’s standards, he is a manic free-spirit, living on the land. Despite vandalism, stealing garden gnomes, and a potentially harmful prank on the police, he doesn’t really seem a danger to anybody. Al’s feeling of inertia begins to crack as Kid works his magic on him. Sisters Purlene and Floatie Dupre (Lisa Blount and Catherine Keener) work their own brand of magic on the men.
I like both main protagonists for different reasons. I like the Kid because he is funny and wears his heart on his sleeve. I like Al because I can relate to his loneliness and private pain. The brunt of an abusive father and an uncaring world have turned him cold, and the pain of his isolation is keenly felt in the scene where he overhears his co-workers mocking him. I love the little details in this movie, like the phone sex operators dirty boys shoes and the NRA-centric country music playing on the jukebox in the restaurant.
I did not like how casually Al’s infidelity was treated. His wife really seemed to be trying, which was overlooked in favor of Al’s fling with Floatie, who did not seem to be the brightest light on the menorah, if you catch my drift. I did like the friendship between Al and Kid, which seemed a little on the gay side at times, but they also puzzlingly eagerly sook out rendezvouses with women (?) Maybe somewhat homoerotic male bonding was their man-love limit.
“Box of Moonlight” is funny, sweet, unsentimental, and quirky without being full of self-conscious pop-culture quips. I’m not exactly sure what it was getting at but I certainly enjoyed the ride. It may not be of interest to most people, obscure as it is, but fans of independent films interested in going ‘off the grid’ (as Kid would say) should enjoy this excursion into eccentricity.
Note- I put the poster with the naked Turturro with a clock on my post because f’ing hate the DVD release cover. Dermot Mulroney was in the film for five fucking minutes of screentime total and his mug gets put on the front of the box, Where’s Rockwell’s face? He had ten times the screentime, and where is he? Oh, he’s the tiny little guy dancing on the bottom. Sorry. Pet peeve of mine:)