Part travelogue, part search for the self, the road movie—like its literary cousin, the on-the-road memoir—is a distinctly American genre, and we should enjoy good new specimens while we can, before the escalating price of gas means the notion of non-rich people driving cross-country has all the verisimilitude of Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov taking a rocket ship to the planet Mongo. Martin Hynes’s first film, The Go-Getter, is an especially wonderful addition to the genre, with the right—flickering—mixture of loneliness and enchantment, and with jokes that come at you from just around the bend.
Hynes follows 19-year-old Mercer White (Lou Taylor Pucci), who steals a car in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to track down his estranged, much older half-brother and let him know their mom died: a melancholy setup. The fun part is that the owner of the car left her cell phone in it, knows who he is (how? A mystery), and keeps calling for late-night bull sessions.
Even more fun, the voice belongs to Zooey Deschanel, which means it’s among the most charming in movies (and, now, music): sardonic yet hopeful, throaty, yet with a girlish tinkle. What do they talk about? Stuff. Mercer wonders what it would be like if we could understand dogs and cats: “What if they were just as disappointing as humans and they thought about nothing?” He imagines what she looks like; he tries on different faces—white, black, Asian—as she speaks. Then he finds an I.D. in her gym bag and can picture her. In one conversation, she’s in the backseat, turning on and off a strap-on doctor’s light on her head. The simple, handmade vision fits her voice, and fits the movie, too. In his road picture Into the Wild, Sean Penn went in for fancy montage and never settled into the moment. In The Go-Getter, moments come one after another; even in motion, the movie is grounded.
Mercer’s half-brother, Arlen (Jsu Garcia), was a bounder who left a trail of pissed-off people. So Mercer keeps driving south, from the Mojave to L.A. to Mexico, and the people he meets—in the best road-movie tradition—open up to him. But there’s opening up and opening up, up, and away. A potter Arlen robbed (Nick Offerman, who has three entertaining roles) socks Mercer on the jaw, then shares his marijuana pipe. (“I’m a lapsed Buddhist. I still love everybody except that fuckass Arlen.”) An existentialist child pornographer (Julio Oscar Mechoso) credits Arlen for knowing just what he should do to give his existence meaning. A liquor salesman in a ten-gallon hat (Bill Duke) shares his thoughts on Americans’ pathetic inability to protect themselves by any means but guns. Hynes has a talent for deadpan jaw-droppers that aren’t self-consciously quirky. (In the age of Napoleon Dynamite, “quirky” lines recur in indie movies like hiccups.) The weirdness goes deep.
Happily, Mercer is not an I-am-a-camera blank slate. He’s a kid with his own morbid sense of humor (he tells people his mother is on an Australian walkabout), and Lou Taylor Pucci has loopy rhythms all his own. You don’t see him acting—only reacting, thinking, picking himself up after various batterings and shambling on. Hynes has cast him opposite some of the American indie cinema’s biggest female cuties—not just the irresistible Deschanel but Judy Greer as a hippie-dippie potter, Jena Malone as a teen sexpot with long legs and a dark underbelly, and Maura Tierney as a free-spirited pet-store owner with a terrible band that performs as a condition of parole. (As this sultry flake with a maternal streak, Tierney is a revelation. But so is Malone. And Bill Duke. Pretty much everyone is in clover.)
Hynes throws things out, and some of them clunk: the too-arty opening; an easy gay joke; a song-and-dance interlude. But most work magically well. And then there’s the serendipitous pairing of Deschanel’s voice and the soundtrack by M. Ward: The two met on the film and joined forces on one of the year’s musical delights, She & Him: Volume One. On some road movies, the director has worked everything out in advance: You can almost see the final destination before you get there. This one is alive with discoveries—of locations, characters, the actors who embody them, and even the medium. In The Go-Getter, filmmaking itself feels like Manifest Destiny.
Even more alive—and morally disorienting to the point of inducing dementia—is Nina Davenport’s stupendous documentary Operation Filmmaker, the story of a grand American liberal-humanitarian gesture gone kerflooey. Liev Schreiber, preparing to direct his first feature (in the Czech Republic), Everything Is Illuminated, watches an MTV special on “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in which, amid the devastation, Muthana Mohmed, a 25-year-old Shiite with an infectious smile, says he dreams of being a filmmaker. What an attractive young man! Why not fly him to Prague and give him a job as a production assistant and invite Nina Davenport to chronicle the inspiring story of an Iraqi Muslim joining hands across the cultural divide with a bunch of American Jews? Altruistic and high concept!