sun 14/08/2022

Passenger Side | reviews, news & interviews

Passenger Side

Passenger Side

Director Matthew Bissonnette takes to the road for an exploration of brotherly love

Matthew Bissonnette’s third feature Passenger Side is a mellow, honey-hued road movie which sees two discordant brothers combing the streets of Los Angeles with an initially mysterious purpose. A likeable diversion, for the most part it’s a nicely played two-hander depicting the rekindling of a sibling bond.

The reluctant but ultimately obliging driver is Michael (Adam Scott), the older brother of Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), who takes his seat on the passenger side. Michael has agreed to chauffeur Tobey around for the best part of a beautiful sun-blushed day, without knowing why, and they make various stops around the city. Michael's insatiable curiosity reveals his distrust of his brother, Tobey’s murky past and, ultimately, the truth.

Michael is presented as, intellectually, the superior of the two; he has written an unsuccessful novel, which contentiously features amplified versions of his family. Tobey, during some good-natured ribbing, describes him as a “wallflower” - merely observing and documenting life without surrendering himself to experience. Michael is bitter, cagey and emotionally stunted but is unable to resist helping his brother, who he clearly cares for dearly. Tobey is a reformed junkie who sees himself as “out there on the street with the people, living my life”. He appears believably ravaged by years of substance abuse (looking in fact much older than his elder brother) and has an endearing vulnerability, which belies his rugged appearance.

The basic premise of Passenger Side was taken from the song of the same name by Wilco, which plays over the film’s closing credits. In 2000, Matthew Bissonnette and a friend took a road trip from LA to New York City which Bissonnette videoed, and in 2004 he penned a screenplay loosely based on this adventure when another project briefly collapsed. He conceived the roles with Adam Scott and his own brother Joel in mind, wanting to create a credible brotherly relationship and viewing Adam somewhat as his alternate. The film was eventually shot over just 14 days in May 2008.

Bissonnette and his performers plump for a deadpan, understated approach, which immediately recalls the more assured and distinctive early work of Hal Hartley. With its laconic, bickering buddy shtick it also harks back to the slacker films of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. The film’s retro indie-rock soundtrack fits with the sense that Passenger Side is hoping to evoke a slightly earlier era of film-making.

arascm-560x420The script is snappy and intelligently written (based on this, Bissonnette is a more accomplished writer than he is a director) and the film features some nicely underplayed hilarity, including two terrifically funny sequences - one featuring a rather persistent transsexual hooker, Carla (Vitta Quinn, pictured right), and the other a “fucking crazy desert lady”, Henrietta (Penelope Allen), who freaks Michael out with some David Lynch-style kookiness.

The film’s biggest issue is that, on occasion, it feels tonally and visually inconsistent. The in-car sequences were fairly obviously shot against green screen which is a repeated distraction in a film which otherwise feels broadly, or at least emotionally, authentic. Also, a scene where the brothers interrupt a porn shoot seems straight out of a different, far cruder (and lesser) picture.

Additionally, there are the moments of uncertainty - when the artifice is awkwardly apparent and the film feels too self-consciously quirky. For instance, when Michael describes the plot of the film, in the guise of a jokingly proposed novel, Tobey comments, “That sounds pretty boring.” Soon after - still talking as if they are the inspiration for a work of fiction - their tyre blows out and Michael comments, “Some might say a flat tyre isn’t much in the way of plot development.” However, the leads are a charismatic, largely convincing pair and infuse their characterisations with substance. In short, Passenger Side is a pleasant enough ride; fleeting, entertaining, a little slight, sometimes inconsistent but with an authentic sibling dynamic, excellent banter and ample easy charm.

Watch the trailer for Passenger Side

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