Since divorcing his wife, Adam’s life has become disjointed. Reflecting on his past while wandering through the days and nights of L.A. life in an attempt to try and find something to hold onto and maintain some stability
I tell you what, if there’s one thing I hate when it comes to movies it’s movies about the lives of people in New York or L.A.. No offense if you happen to be someone who lives in either city, I’m sure you’re a swell person — at least if you like Film Bizarro you are. I don’t care for these concepts, partially because pop-culture tells us the lives of the people who live in these cities are infinitely more fascinating than any other (they’re really not), but mainly because they’re bland concepts. Typical stories with typical situations and characters that are, supposedly, more interesting because of what city it’s taking place in.
Thankfully, I didn’t know that that’s what Josh Evans’ latest film, “39” (or “Thirty Nine”), was about when I received the screener and went into the movie blind. Otherwise, had I know, I probably would have had the wrong kind of mindset when going into it. Of course when I did realize what kind of movie “39” was, there was a bit of an 'oh no' reaction on my part. However, since the movie is being released by BrinkVision, I kept the faith that there would be something unique and/or satisfying about the movie.
Well, perhaps not strictly in terms of story and characters since “39” is exactly as simple as the plot outline depicts — we follow Adam (played by Josh Evans) through his disconnected life after he divorces his wife, Tabatha (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and attempts to find some sense of stability while living in the unrealistic world of L.A.. There are no subplots nor is there any greater meaning to the film. It is just the audience following this character around over the course of an undisclosed timeline (my guess is months, if not years). And honestly, if I were to have come across this movie myself and read that outline, I would have thought it sounded ungodly boring. Somehow though, while I watched it, there was still something there that kept my attention.
The simplistic nature of the narrative is masked by how the movie was shot and edited with an end result being some sort of bizarre amalgamation of different cinema disciplines. Styles akin to neorealism, cinéma vérité, Dogme 95, and even mumblecore. And I wouldn’t say “39” falls under any of those categories but rather, it seems to derive elements from them. Whether it was intentional or not. As an example, you have Robert Wagner as part of the cast, yet he and his castmates come across more as non-actors. They’re trying to convey a more naturalistic feeling rather than an actor who’s giving a performance in a movie. Or you could look at a technical aspect, like the sound design. The movie has a score and music is used to reinforce emotional parts of the movie, but the audio itself is all over the place. As if whatever was captured by the camera’s onboard mic was used as the final audio mix — lots of background noise, echoey, shift in pitch, flat, etc..
Certainly these elements and style choices are nothing new in the world of lo-fi indie movies, especially these days, yet this is a movie that works because the form is what pushes it forward. Initially, while I watched the movie, I wondered what I was suppose to be getting out of it. I didn’t like the Adam character, and because of that, I didn’t care about his personal journey. I believe the lack of connection or relation to the character was the intended outcome. The point of “39” is to exist as a piece of observational cinema; an investment in the characters or story is not the focus. Rather, the audience only needs to watch and observe. The non-linear editing, shifting timeline, and blending of realism with the more cinematic elements is what’s used in placement of that connection with the audience (or rather, lack thereof), but to still keep it engaging and not feel so dry as well.
While I’m surprised that “39” was able to hold my attention the way it did, I have no doubt this is the kind of movie that a lot of people are going dislike and slap the ol’ 'student film' label on it. For me, I thought that the mixing of fiction with nonfiction and different film styles is what pushed the movie forward. However, that will probably end up being the same aspect of the movie that drives people away. I’ll also acknowledge that “39” is nothing new and you can in fact see a better film of a similar nature with “Shadow Zombie” — which also happens to be part of the BrinkVision library. That doesn’t mean “39” isn’t without its merits. I think the best aspect about Josh Evans’ film is that it serves as a good reminder that how you tell your story is important. While the story and characters are typical, and there’s not much to invest in, simply experimenting with styles and breaking up formulaic structure through editing can provide engagement with the audience. Now, with that being said, while I liked “39” it’s not a movie I’ll go back to — it’s a one-time viewing experience. Since I consider this to be a polarizing movie, it's not one I think I could simply recommend or not. Rather, I think "39" is one of those movies that's best left to find its audience on its own.