This weekend I checked out the ultra-low-budget Breakfast With Curtis (which screens again Wednesday and Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center) because its poster features a pull quote from no less than Paul Thomas Anderson. Not that I consider Anderson’s taste to be infallible, but it piqued my interest to see him endorsing a “micro-indie.” The maker of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood is famous for his formal ambition, whereas so many recent underground films have felt like glorified home movies. What made this one stand out?
At first glance, not much, as Breakfast With Curtis resembles a home movie in many respects. Most of it takes place in two neighboring houses in Providence, Rhode Island; a single extended family comprises the majority of the nonprofessional cast; and writer-director-cinematographer-editor Laura Colella (a part-time instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design since 1996) seems more interested in capturing the patterns of domestic life than in telling a story. Yet Colella has the filmmaking chops to turn these limitations into virtues, making them necessary parts of her design.
The domestic lives presented in Curtis aren’t ordinary ones. One of the two houses is a commune belonging to two longtime couples and a single elderly woman. No one has a job, though everyone appears to be engaged in multiple creative projects. The residents speak lovingly of their adventures in other countries and with other, more distinguished artists. It seems as though one of them had a windfall years ago that continues to support them all—that, or the publishing company managed by chief eccentric Syd (Theo Green, who’s apparently just like this in real life) is as successful as he claims it to be. In any case, the home seems to be liberated from time as most people experience it. Days flow into each other; ancient memories drift through conversation like a pleasant breeze. Pot smoking is a frequent, if not constant, activity. This tiny, eccentric utopia feels like a hippie variation on the house in You Can’t Take It With You—and Colella recalls that movie through her old-Hollywood-style dialogue, which sounds literate but not mannered.
Next door to the commune is a single-family home occupied by 14-year-old Curtis and his parents. As closed off as the commune seems, Curtis’s world is even smaller. He’s homeschooled, friendless, and generally too shy to speak. But when Syd sees the kid playing with a camcorder, he declares him a budding filmmaker and recruits him to direct his new web series, Breakfast With Syd. In spite of the family’s strained relationship with the neighbors, Curtis’s mother warms to the idea, apparently happy for him to get beyond his backyard.
The plot charts the boy’s initiation into the tribe and the gradual reconciliation between the two homes, but the more important development is how the commune’s screwy reality comes to engulf the rest of the film. (At times, this feels like an adaptation of the young-adult novel Richard Brautigan never wrote.) For much of its first half, Breakfast With Curtis seems tied to the title character’s perspective, regarding the others with a mix of curiosity and benign confusion. But as it goes on, Colella digresses more and more from her setup, spending time with the adult characters without using Curtis as an audience surrogate. As such, the would-be caricatures in the commune seem increasingly like real people. One senses the disappointments that might come into view when and if the marijuana cloud should pass from their home.
Those disappointments don’t seem particularly heavy, though, as the movie’s lighter-than-air sensibility remains intact until the very end. Or is it just really good grass the characters are smoking? Like Prince Avalanche (the artiest stoner movie of 2013 after To the Wonder), Breakfast With Curtis feels structured after a rather satisfying high, with non sequitur jokes giving way to moments of heightened sensitivity, even awe. This year, Paul Thomas Anderson will release his first stoner comedy, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice—which, like Curtis, deals with the legacy of 60s dropout culture. Given the references to independent movies that Anderson’s tucked into his other films (such as odes to Putney Swope in Boogie Nights), I wouldn’t be surprised if his next work contains a few subtle tips of the hat to Colella’s.