As spring turns to summer, I find myself thinking a lot about Breakfast With Curtis, the Rhode Island-shot indie that screened at the Siskel Center back in January. Set over a sweet, lazy three-month vacation, Curtis, like The Green Ray or Dazed and Confused, is a quintessential summer movie. Too bad it played here in the middle of an extended deep-freeze. I doubt if many Chicagoans got to see it in a theater, and in any case, it really should have played here closer to this time of year. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have it available to watch, if you want to catch up with it—I highly recommend that you do.
Though I wrote favorably about the film when it came through town, I regret a good deal of that piece now. In particular I regret having labeled Curtis a “doper reverie,” as that may have created the false impression that it’s all about getting high. Marijuana does factor crucially in the narrative—informing the loping manner of the storytelling and providing the set-up for the movie’s climax, wherein the teenaged title character discovers that his father is a fallible human being like himself (a poignant moment that recalls the climax of Ozu’s I Was Born, But. . .). But this movie is not really about pothead subculture, or even drop-out culture, as I also wrote, inaccurately. It’s about accepting yourself and the people around you for all your quirks—and about learning to make your own fun. These lessons may be as played-out as stoner humor, but one of the remarkable things about Curtis is how it makes them seem new by rooting them in the behavior of its unique characters.
The life lessons don’t come off as such because writer-director Laura Colella maintains such a laid-back, intimate approach. That might not seem like a great achievement at first, since the cast consists of Colella and people she knows very well: her boyfriend, her landlady, her roommates, and her neighbors. It takes place almost entirely in their two homes and backyards. But the movie ingratiates itself with the viewer right away, making you feel like a welcome guest. In no time at all, the style becomes invisible (although Colella pulls off some elegant camera movements for a micro-budgeted production) and the film just hangs out with you. Colella doesn’t have to divulge what her characters do for a living—which led me to assume, wrongly, that they don’t have jobs. (It’s likely that most of them teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, like Colella does, and are off for the summer.) Nor does she spell out that Curtis has a mood disorder. He’s home-schooled because he’s frightened around strangers and often overwhelmed by anxiety, but Colella presents his condition as neither embarrassing nor insurmountable.
I should disclose that my admiration for the film has a lot to do with this empathetic portrait. As someone with bipolar disorder, I remember very well what Curtis’s struggle was like—having to wrestle with the fear of strangers ostracizing you for being crazy on top of having to wrestle with the disorder itself. Colella presents it as a triumph that Curtis finds friends he can trust and learns to feel comfortable in his own skin. These too might sound like familiar messages, though I’d say they’ve become urgent again in light of the tragic state of the American mental health care system (the subject of an exceptional piece of reporting that the Guardian published earlier this week). One way to start tackling this problem is by raising awareness of mental disorders and removing any public stigma surrounding them—as Breakfast With Curtis, in characteristically modest fashion, does.
There I go again, making the movie sound like something it’s not. Curtis is hardly a public service announcement—rather, it’s the freshest American comedy to play Chicago so far this year. One scene in the film for which I’m especially grateful (and which the pleasant weather has made me think about the most) comes in the second half. Two of Curtis’s bohemian neighbors (played by Colella and Adele Parker) decide to celebrate their elderly landlady’s birthday by throwing a tea party in the backyard. They invite Curtis’s mother, but refuse to let the men of the house take part—the affair will be ladies only. Because he really wants a piece of birthday cake and because he doesn’t have much else to do, Colella’s boyfriend puts on a dress, adopts a cartoonish “ladylike” manner, and elbows his way into the festivities. Silly as it is, this scene registers as a major plot point, illustrating the growing camaraderie between the neighbors and heralding the victory of communal play over plot. That’s an unusual way to structure a movie, but as Breakfast With Curtis reminds us, there’s nothing wrong with being unusual.