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The Seekers: Sundance's Protags Find the Journey Is Its Own Reward

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by Carlos Aguilar
February 6, 2014 4:13 PM
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Miles Teller in 'Whiplash'

Above all the other layers of existential complexity that define a person's identity lays the importance of purpose. The human plight to find a rationale that justifies the role each one of us plays in the immensity of life is by far the one question that preoccupies most forms of storytelling. Who is this character? And by that we mean to ask, what does he do? Why does she do that? And does what he does define who he is? This intricate relationship between what a character, fictional or real, does and who she really is can most simply be appreciated when we encounter one-dimensional personalities. 

Take for example any given Disney film. The villain plans and caries out wicked deeds, therefore his entire persona is recognized as being evil; there is no gray area or nuance to speak of. In the same manner the princess or hero exemplifies all the morally outstanding qualities that we should strive to encompass. They can be tempted but never corrupted. These opposite perspectives have a specific set of traits that dictate what the character is capable of doing, and in turn who he is. They each have a mutually exclusive purpose to fulfill in the greater spectrum of the story they inhabit. 

Pondering this notion of motivation while watching films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, four characters stood out as having very peculiar moral compasses in terms of what they are and what they want to become: their purpose. 

First on the list, and perhaps the one with the most abstract journey, is Jerry Hickfang, the protagonist of Marjane Satrapi's The Voices, played impeccably by Ryan Reynolds. Seemingly a normal guy who works at a warehouse Jerry suffers from schizophrenia and goes home at night to chat with his two extremely opinionated pets: Mr. Whiskers, a sassy, borderline neurotic cat and Bosco, his loving dog. Strangely enough, they both verbalize their advice on how he should approach his daily predicaments.

Jerry wants to prove to himself that he is a good person and he wants to be loved, which makes him insanely endearing for a psychopath. Although product of his illness, his actions are perceived as abhorrent by the rest of the world that doesn't live in his fantastic subconscious. What he does -- killing people -- defines how he is seen and creates an internal conflict with his mission of convincing himself and others that he is a well-intentioned man. In a vicious circle he repeatedly commits terrible crimes certain that this is what it takes to be labeled as good. 

Rinko Kikuchi in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter'

Following a similar pattern of unreasonable behavior is Kumiko, brought to life by Rinko Kikuchi, the title character in the Zellner brothers' Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Obsessed with finding the mythical suitcase that Steve Buscemi buries under the snow in the Coens' Fargo, this Japanese woman leaves her life behind to come to Minnesota in search of what she believes to be real. Still, she is not on a quest to simply become rich, but she wants to show those back at home, specially her mother and boss, that she can do great things. This irrational trip will give her the validation she's been denied. If successful, Kumiko would go from a purposeless late-twenties single woman to a wealthy, fearless, and driven heroine worthy of praise. 

Having discussed the delusional mentalities that pushed two of these characters into less than normal circumstances to realize their goals, we can know deal with the other pair that is much more grounded in reality, but still very much extreme in their methods. 

Egocentric, arrogant, and immeasurably selfish, Philip is an aspiring writer who is willing to bypass any societal norms relating to healthy human interactions in order to become an icon. Played by Jason Schwartzman, the protagonist of Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip lacks sympathy for others unless they can somehow serve as tools to materialize his ambition. His self-image is so blatantly blurred by his delusions of grandeur that even his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), goes from being a commodity and supplier to be rendered as nothing more than an obstacle. Not surprisingly, Philip admits that he would much rather be remembered as a successful author than as having any meaningful role in the personal lives of those around him.  For him, emotional connection is synonym with commitment that will lead to failure. 

Existing on the same wavelength is Andrew, an up-and-coming drummer blinded by his irrational hunger for glory. In the Grand Jury Prize Winning film Whiplash, Miles Teller plays this young man whose sole reason to get up in the morning is to get better at playing the drums. He is not only after a contract or a mediocre position in a band; he aspires, or better said, he needs to become a legend by reaching a new level of skill unfathomable for mere mortals. Andrew's vision of the world exists between his fingers and his drums sticks. Nothing in the periphery has any value for him, nor a girlfriend, or family, or his own physical safety. Lost in the ecstasy that envelops him when he is in the zone, he loses sight of reality. What he does –- play drums -- engulfs everything else that makes him a person and becomes his singular unshakable purpose. Unafraid of the consequences, he is literally willing to die to be recognized as one of the greatest drummers in history. Whether that ideal is feasible or nor is irrelevant to him. 

Unpopular and alienated, this collection of misunderstood antiheroes share noticeable similarities both in the details of their stories and in the tone utilize by the filmmakers to tell them.  

Regardless of the tangible nature of each of their respective objectives, all four of these characters are seeking to evolve, to surpass their current state and be perceived as something better than what they think they are. Inherently they believe they need to change and in order to do so something radical must happen. What is particular about them is the fact that they are not thirsty for revenge, or pursuing a romantic interest, or even searching for material success for the sake of it. They essentially need acknowledgement from an outside source to validate their decisions and to feel like their struggles are worthwhile. 

Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss in 'Listen Up Philip'

Jerry and Kumiko are both mentally unstable either because of traumatic experiences, negative reinforcement from their authority figures, or genetics. They both pursue their paths to impact the way others see them. Their dilemma is of a much more emotional quality. Jerry wants someone, anyone, to love him for what he is and to reassure him that he is not a monster. Kumiko, on the other hand, would like his mother to think she is special even though she doesn't fit the mold and expectations for women her age. Meanwhile, Philip and Andrew also want to be loved but their quest is entirely merit base. They need for their accomplishments to be revered, and via this adoration they would be able to accept themselves as important individuals. They need others to applaud their talents in order for them to see their self-worth.

Of course the external voices that each of these lost souls listen to, are crucial in the development of their twisted ideologies. Philip has an older writer as a mentor, Ike (Jonathan Pryce), who suffers from the same self-centered pomposity as he. Ike is at once Philip's driving force and support system, as well as the physical representation of what he will become if he continues on the same road. For Andrew, the relationship with his teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) has a more corrosive effect on him. Ruthless and strict, Simmons' character pushes Andrew to the limit under the false pretense of wanting him to be the best he can be, but it often comes across as a vehicle to satisfy his sadistic fantasies. Nevertheless, Andrew's rage against him becomes an inspiring feud to keep going and metaphorically defeat him. In both cases teacher and pupil are part of a continuum. Their relationship is symbiotic. 

For Kumiko, the sporadically mentioned but relevant emotional dependency on her mother's opinion of her life is the main factor that forces her to travel the world to make her proud. Every time they speak on the phone her mother questions her about marriage or a promotion at her job, disqualifying any of her efforts. These constant demoralizing statements are the catalyst. 

More contrasting are the voices that talk to Jerry. On the one hand his cat, Mr. Whiskers, encourages him to kill and assures him he is evil and can't escape his fate. Then there is his therapist, played by Jacki Weaver, who truly believes he is good at heart and that he can overcome his internal demons. Evidently conflicted by these different views Jerry tries to make sense of it all by continuing to kill in an act of self-preservation.  For both of these characters the poisonous dialogue, real or not, leaves them with no choice but to cope in disturbingly unsafe manners. Their purpose is viciously distorted by elements outside of their control. 

Taking into account the heavy concepts that play a role in each of these films, the filmmakers' greatest success it that in all of them there is a comedic, sometimes even lighthearted tone that makes the drama more palatable. Kumiko's role as an outsider lost in the Minnesota wilderness lends itself for some situational, and hilarious, comedy that comes from her interactions with small-town Americans. Philip's witty, dismissive, and outright disrespectful comments pack a punch in terms of their comedic power. Subtler is the comic relief in the exhilarating Whiplash, sometimes involuntary, but often derived from Andrew's pragmatism when dealing with relationship, these moments are necessary to endure the fast-paced sequences that permeate the film. Lastly, out of the four, The Voices is undoubtedly the one with the most outrageous, gutsy, and inappropriate humor coming from all fronts.  Sexually deviant talking animals, magical realist murder scenes, and an adorable killer take the cake for their inventiveness. 

Multilayered and multifaceted, the characters examined here have in common a certain flawed humanity that speaks of the fragile nature of a person's identity. How far would we go to find a place or a achieve a status that makes our lives meaningful? Who defines what the parameters by which worth is measured? Is it us? Or the constant input of the external components that form our self-image? Perhaps purpose is relative and ever changing but is in the quest itself that audiences find pleasure when watching a film or reading a book. It doesn't really matter if Kumiko gets the money or Philip writes a best-seller, is in the things they lose or gain while seeking this unreachable satisfaction that the journey finds meaning. Needless to say all for of these films have proved themselves to be deserving of praise. 

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