By Christopher Bell | The Playlist June 3, 2011 at 2:42AM
As we grow older, a number of unavoidable sad truths smack us square in the face. Many of them are probably things we swore would never happen to us -- and hey, wouldn't you know it, they did. One of these is the deterioration of a group of friends either due to distance, change in interests, or lack of convenience. In terms of mortality and the fragility of life they're not so dire, but there's still something very defeating about losing touch with people that, at one point, we had very substantial bonds with. Even the occasional get-togethers have a lingering "It's not what it used to be" sentiment for somebody, even if it's better to not hold the past up on a pedestal and just enjoy the moment. None of it is easy to shake and its something you can't understand until it's experienced. This heavy, draining thought pervades the film "Turkey Bowl," a cheapie first feature by Kyle Smith that rings with authentic emotion and tense discomfort.
Using money won from a reality-TV show and casting his friends (even keeping their names), an audience member is likely to think the worst of this no-budget scenario. Fortunately, this isn't a bunch of non-actors sitting in an apartment talking or playing with Chat Roulette or slinkies; it's a group of chaps brought together to play a traditional game of football, one that slowly bleeds out their subtle insecurities and frustrations with one another. Things are constantly nerve-racking, and Smith very slowly builds up the hostility between everyone, leaving the viewer constantly anticipating someone snapping and becoming violent.
Every August, Jon (surname Schmidt) organizes a competition amongst his college buds, awarding the winning team with a beautiful turkey to feast on. However, his gang are growing apart (a few from the group don't even show) and those that do all have unresolved issues or biases towards someone else in the collective. The roster is as follows: Morgan (Beck), who is a bit nerdy but has the dry deliveries worthy of Chris Eigeman; the just-one-of-the-guys Kerry (Bishé) who's caught the eye of many; the quiet and temperamental Adam (Benic); big goofy lug Tom (DiMenna); hyperactive Monster Energy guzzling Bob (Turton); the sometimes bossy Zeke (Hawkins) and his girlfriend that keeps him away from the gang Zoe (Perry). Rounding out the pack are two outsiders that Kerry brings along, the much more athletic Troy (Buchanan) and Sergio (Villarreal), a duo that many of the bunch are reluctant to accept into their clique for multiple reasons (most which are never explicitly stated, thus adding to the edginess).
If those brief descriptions sound too generic, Smith agrees -- they're only the jump off point, with everyone having a fully developed connection with one another and not one sticking to a single defining characteristic. Each have their own humor and relationship to each other and the game. Those that are strained erupt throughout the game and they always suggest something a bit deeper than what they're fighting over (Sergio's overly-competitive nature irritates Jon, Zoe gets fed up with Zeke telling her what to do, Bob doesn't pass to Adam when he's open, etc.) and while it does start to feel a bit predictable, there's also plenty of truth involved. People can be very reluctant to be confrontational and honest, leading to minor bottled annoyances that compound and inevitably burst when pushed a little too far -- like when being shit talked, however jovially, during an aggressive sport. But the most interesting moments come from the two cogs in the wheel, strangers Troy and Sergio. The troop is reluctant to allow these two newcomers into their exclusive club -- an attitude not uncommon with a peer group, especially those as shaky as this one. They also happened to be much more fit than most of the others, maybe actually too good and serious for a game that's a bit more of a goof. Deeper, though, there's also a slight undertone of racism. Troy is African and Sergio is Spanish, and though it's an undertone that is never anything more than that it's still distressingly felt nonetheless.
Because of the nature/non-existence of the plot, the beginning, middle, and end are very predictable as they all coincide with the match. You know they'll break at a certain point in the middle and it's obvious they'll finish the game and part ways as friends. But relationships aren't that straightforward and people aren't as logical as structure-heavy narratives make them out to be. Almost every interaction in the movie has a certain amount of awkwardness to it, and those coupled with uncomfortable altercations shape the story in an unconventional, mysterious way. Even in the end when everyone says their goodbyes (and Sergio gives his number to Jon in a scene way more uncomfortable and impacting than one would ever think), few issues are resolved and there's very little evidence that this game ultimately solved any problems or improved the collective for the better.
With a simple premise, a slim running time (62 minutes), and some excellent editing, the filmmaker is able to craft not only an effective piece on deteriorating friendship and human sensitivity, but on the surface he constructs a very watchable and entertaining game of football. The camera's front and center for every huddle and every play, and while it's not a group of pigskin Einsteins mulling over the Annexation of Puerto Rico, the real-time rush of the playing is felt and it's easy to get invested in this low-key match. Rarely has a bunch of friends on their last legs been portrayed so authentically, with a refusal to push in emotionally for that cheap audience tear. Kyle Smith makes a great first step in the American indie-ground, and we're happy to have'em. [B+]