I recently rewatched Sam Neave's 2003 film Cry Funny Happy, which I first saw a few years ago. That initial viewing pretty much floored me -- I wasn't expecting the film to come anywhere close to the emotional terrain it ended up in. The film focuses on several friends, one of whom, Wes, is turning 30 and has decided to throw a party at his and his girlfriend's apartment. Several of Wes's friends have made the trip to New York City to attend his party. We are introduced to them in a series of intercutted scenes, and eventually it all converges at Wes's apartment, where the party gets underway.
Up until this point, the film is very well acted, and I would add very well written, but I learned via the DVD's commentary that it was almost totally improvised, which isn't surprising, except that it feels written with perhaps the characters given the freedom to ad lib as needed. The whole film has the feel of Cassavetes Husbands, or a Mike Leigh film, where the improvisation was done beforehand, and then "locked down" with a script. In other words, very little from the performances feels extraneous. This is due to another fact revealed in the commentary: the actors were given time to work on their characters and relationships to each other before shooting began, and as a result the film feels both spontaneous and focused.
My initial impression was that Neave was simply going to show us some interesting characters, give them a party to attend during which some skeletons might be revealed, and then send them on their way. Instead, almost on a dime, Wes has a breakdown and the party derails. It is here that the focus I mentioned above becomes more apparent (especially during a second viewing). Wes's character is harboring some sort of pain that up until this point is hinted at through his humor and his passive-aggressive arguments with his girlfriend. We are never given a concrete reason as to why he feels this way or why he loses it during his party. Neave says in the commentary that there were some deleted scenes having to do with Wes gambling, perhaps losing some money or something. I think it was wise to leave these scenes out. Not being able to pin Wes's behavior on any specific event forces us to not only observe Wes more acutely, but perhaps realize that these feelings and behaviors aren't quite so foreign to our own lives, either. When all is said and done, it's pretty much a tour de force of independent filmmaking. I've seen very little in the no-budget movement from the last decade that matches its sharp observations and intensity.
Neave's new film, Almost in Love, is just beginning to be shown at film festivals, and I'll being seeing it for sure when it makes its way to the Bay Area.