Stay Cold, Stay Hungry, the first feature from Writer/Director Eric Branco (Barbasol cinematographer) is the story of two different homeless men on a journey to self-actualization and redemption.
The film opens with cuts between a very morose Manny (12 Steps to Recovery’s Stephen Hill) attempting to reach his family on the phone and enigmatic Harley (newcomer John Marra) enjoying drinks at the bar with old friends, discussing their various travels around the world. We get the feeling Harley’s on another journey, but he doesn’t make that clear. We soon see he has no phone and is living on the street.
It’s evident there is something amiss with Harley in his movements as a vagrant. From his public restroom birdbaths with Dr. Bronner’s castile peppermint soap to the stylish appearance of his overgrown beard and backpack, he’s the hippest–almost hipster–bum. Conversely, Manny, the recovering alcoholic, lives in a Church shelter and takes pride in himself, dusting his Tim’s like any other brother would, but is drawn into a world with which he is making do, fighting to come out of, while Harley seems content to explore various freegan ways in dumpster dives and hotel plaza respites. Harley’s days are spent joyously traveling on the train, scrawling his Sharpie assisted symbol, which apparently amounts to hipster “tagging,” while Manny frequently calls home and works in his church.
Branco says that Harley is "an amalgam of various people" he knew growing up attending Bronx High School of Science. The rich kids who "looked like they were struggling financially, and then later you'd find out that their parents were millionaires." These are the types to take two month vacations backpacking thru Mexican slums "literally running away from their privilege to see how real people lived. It was all made possible by the safety net of money." How does a person like this get involved with, and garner sympathy from, one like Manny? Only through deception.
Their first encounter involves Manny helping Harley secure his tarp for the night, a harbinger of their relationship to come. The always charismatic Hill plays a very protective big brother-father to Manny as he longs for his own family. The bromance is solid and intimate and might be read differently by different audiences, but they would be reaching. To this end, Hill offers, “I see Manny as a father figure to Harley. In fact, this is the strongest link to Manny’s character need.”
In Harley’s attempts to connect with Manny, he spouts his Trustafarian views about the city getting better, getting grittier because “they” are running the rich white folk out of town. Manny understands it differently and opines it’s not about white or Black, but green. As green as Manny’s understanding of the city and the power structure.
Manny’s ties to the church as a worker, border, and devoted attendant influence his decisions to continue to help this stranger which end up putting him in several situations where he has to decide whose salvation is more important. Often, the choice is to his detriment. When Harley’s true identity is revealed, the beautifully shot and heart wrenching conclusion bring us closer to understanding why but without sympathy for one of these gentlemen. White guilt finally has a face.
This film relies on the strength of Marra and Hill’s performances and they deliver the well-written dialogue beautifully, portraying Harley’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and Manny’s determination and genuine support with aplomb. Stay Cold, Stay Hungry does not delve deeply into Manny's past and the specifics of how he came to be in these circumstances, but instead offers an understanding that this isn't a panhandler; this is a man with the resilience to overcome his situation and return to his family better and stronger. As Hill muses, "What do you do when you meet a guy like Manny who doesn't want your coins; he hasn't invited you to a pity party? SCSH explores that."
Stay Cold, Stay Hungry is screening in Brooklyn at the Coney Island Film Festival 9/21 at 9pm. Show up with tissues.