REVIEW: Romeo’s Distress
– By M Jones
Romeo’s Distress is a homage to the quirky, disarming in the way it harkens back to ancient John Waters caricatures and the soft side of indie 80’s films, from which it derives an influence. But the darker themes within it turn with sinister purpose upon the viewer, creating a strange, uneven pastiche of genres that meld together into a grim conclusion that holds little of its initial innocence. It is both a parody and a homage to the indie greats that have gone on before, and it works quite well.
First, it must be said, this is a feature length indie movie made on an insanely tiny budget (I believe IMDB lists the budget at around $2,000) and yet still maintains high production values thanks to highly creative camera work and a keen understanding of using black and white imagery to great dramatic advantage. The influences on Romeo’s Distress are obvious, with some harkening back to David Lynch’s classic Eraserhead, especially in scenes of grandma’s creepy munchies. These nightmare glimpses are paired off with the goofy dreams of the protagonist, James, who is portrayed in the first half of the film as a childish, cartoonish optimist seeking to let the girl he loves know he adores her. James is very much an immature young man, one whose innocent perspective places him at his odds with what at first seems to be his victimization by a bully, played to perfection by actor Adam Stordy. But there are subtle hints along the way that something far more sinister is going on and James may not be the sweet, loveable, nerdy hero of a simple first love story as the viewer was led to believe.
The shift in point of view to that of Jane’s father is both dramatic and seamless, the foreshadowing clear throughout. Director Jeff Frumess has an excellent grip on suspense and would do well to explore more of this darkness in future works. As we are plunged into the sadistic perspective of Jane’s father, played with malicious glee by actor Jeffrey Alan Solomon, the story becomes a bleak nightmare of torture and revenge. The remaining forty-five minutes of Romeo’s Distress are well worth the surreal wait as the differences in points of view and are highly polarized using unrelated genre styles as a way to enhance that contrast. It’s 80’s indie kitsch meets Fritz Lang. Jane’s father may well have good reasons for doing what he does, as James’s creepy, childlike flashbacks of stalking his daughter adds more fire to the tense scenes, reality brutally clashing with hokey fantasy.
Keep an eye on actor Adam Stordy, who plays Bobby Samson. His portrayal of a young man with conflicted ethics adds a further layer of tense, gritty realism that contrasts greatly with James’s cartoonish perspective.
The camera work is astonishing. This is very well produced stuff for a budget that is literally out of a paper bag. I’m very excited to see the evolution of Jeff Frumess’s style in the years to come. With unapologetic originality and a nod and parody of other indie experimental works in the Lynch and John Waters vein, with a good chunk of Hitchcock thrown in, Frumess is going to be a director to watch. I can’t begin to imagine what he could do with a much larger budget and a much darker script. Frumess has a fantastic understanding of character tension and is not afraid to use challenging camera work, with brutal scenes conveyed in a kaleidoscopic collage of pain, devoid of over reaching special effects and still horrifying in its subtlety.
The film ends with the same handheld camcorder quirkiness that James was so steeped in. A happily ever after within his bubblegum world view, only for it to be tainted by the darker tones of how that happiness came to be, the crueler reality offered in heavily contrasted black and white. Romeo’s Distress is an interesting film, one that both parodies and exalts the evolution of the indie film genre, and offers its own disturbing addition to its ongoing legacy.