“FightFuckPray” (2008)

fightpray At the onset, “FightFuckPray” announces that all the dialogue in the film was entirely improvised. That could be, but the three stories (titled “Fight,” “Fuck” and “Pray”) that eventually intersect must have at least been outlined and analyzed by the actors, a set of young amateurs from the Atlanta area who give impressively intense performances. According to imdb.com, the film was shot in 2000 and 2001 and then shelved until it was admitted to the Atlanta Film Festival in 2008. It can be bought on Amazon.com and the trailer can be viewed here.

“FightFuckPray” proclaims that it was inspired by John Cassavetes and the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking. That is evident in the handheld, shaky camera, which tends to burrow into the faces of the three principal, hopelessly isolated characters. But its portentous tone and unsympathetic, self-destructive characters reminded me more of “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman’s sprawling and bitter adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories. Unlike “Short Cuts,” which made Los Angeles’ sweaty, culturally diverse neighborhoods seem endless in scope, the settings here are small and claustrophobic–a rooftop, beer-fueled reunion between a criminal just sprung from jail, his brother and his loose cannon friend; a lonely woman who is more or less stalking her ex at a local bar; and a malcontent who embarrasses himself at a jaded New Year’s Eve party. But the misanthropy on display is almost as jarring. The insular world that these characters find themselves in is alternately hostile and sexually depraved; either way, there’s no intimacy, no connection.

For a film written, directed by and starring many of the same people, “FightFuckPray” is astoundingly short on self-congratulatory theatrics. It has some mumblecore genre elements–whole scenes go by where the inarticulate characters barely say anything–but there’s more tension at its core, more sense that something violent and cathartic is about to happen. And it never seems forced that that catharsis happens at a New Year’s party, that dreaded time of year when the rejected watch the requited rejoice and feel nothing but disgust.

The most striking performers are Christina Kline, who plays Kate, the aforementioned stalker, and Conal Byrne, as Ben, the aforementioned ill-at-ease partygoer. Kate is first seen sobbing while babysitting for her undoubtedly more fulfilled friend; Ben, stuck in a dead-ended fish store job, is first seen spitting into a fish tank in disgust. When Ben’s more extroverted cousin and co-worker invites him to a party, he panics. He goes home and practices talking to girls in the mirror; when he starts describing his miserable job, he breaks down in a fit of rage. To settle down, he puts on a gas-mask and stares at a fish tank for hours, an inventively eerie sequence.

image004_025 Meanwhile, Ethan (Darren Mann), is gearing himself up for a “boy’s night out” with his jailbird friend and friend’s brother–they informally plan some sort of low-stakes robbery–when he bumps smack into his ex Kate at a bar. The jailbird angrily confronts Kate, accusing her of stalking. Somehow Kate lets on to Ethan that she’s going to a party–the same one as Ben and his cousin–and despite warnings from his crew, Ethan is soon at the same party.

Ben and Kate are clearly soulmates but don’t know it yet. In an alarmingly well-done scene, Ben (who resembles a more unbalanced Andrew McCarthy) strikes out with two girls, desperately, angrily insisting that they listen to a lengthy, tiresome anecdote. His cousin harangues him, demanding they separate for the rest of the party. Mortified, Ben locks himself in the bathroom to regroup, but he’s ambushed by a sexually forward punk girl, who variously flirts with and emasculates him.

At the other end of the party, Kate experiences a very different brand of failed connection with several sleazy guys, who are either not charmed by her blunt, often explicit conversation, or discard her after instant gratification. Ben and Kate end up consoling each other in a private bedroom, but we know this isn’t going to end in a heartfelt fashion, what with violent, drunken ex-cons lurking about the party.

All of “FightFuckPray” is watchable and unsettling except for the rather inert third storyline, about a crazy woman’s dead husband. In a strangely solemn take on “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the woman finds him dead from an apparent heart attack but refuses to notify the police, instead cuddling with him, shaving him, and eventually propping him up on the living room sofa for a cozy New Year’s at home. We expect a Raymond Carver-esque, sinister outcome from this creepy vignette, but the way that story ties in to the others is haphazard and forced. Still, notwithstanding its attention-getting title and tacky tagline (“What do you do when life brings you to your knees?”), this is a very compelling film and should be distributed on Netflix.

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