What I Love About Concrete

I always look forward to the Chicago Underground Film Festival, not because the offerings are uniformly great—truth be told, they’re a total crap shoot—but because they’re almost always original. There are no remakes, sequels, or adaptations of best-selling young-adult trilogies; no TV spinoffs or video-game dramatizations or major motion pictures inspired by Funny or Die clips. The people who make these movies labor over them in bedrooms and basements, fretting and fussing over each frame, secure in the knowledge that they can tinker with their masterpiece forever because no one really wants to see it anyway. No sooner had I sat down to review What I Love About Concrete, the opening-night feature, than I heard from CUFF founder Bryan Wendorf that the 97-minute version I’d been given was already out of date, and the movie would be screening at 87 minutes. So feel free to stop reading about nine-tenths of the way through this.

What I Love About Concrete was shot over a period of four years in Memphis, one of my favorite places but also, its musical tourism notwithstanding, a hick town that feels completely enclosed from the outside world. Molly Whuppie, an ugly duckling in high school, wakes one morning in a strange house with a dead swan lying beside her, which she stuffs into her backpack and takes home. The avian motif continues as Molly mysteriously lays a giant egg and, seeking counsel from the school librarian, learns that the woman turns into a giant stork at night. Long before the climactic moment when Molly sprouts giant wings and flies away, writer-directors Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart have beaten their fantasy element into the ground, but when you work on a movie for four years, it’s easy to lose perspective.

The hothouse aspect of shooting in Memphis works in their favor, though, when they turn their attention to Black Swanson High School, which is filled with lovingly rendered and unimpeachably authentic kooks: the principal, Dr. Cobb, who augments his morning intercom addresses with quotations from lionized generals; the gym teacher, Coach Kumquat, whose sex education class is one long commercial for abstinence; Molly’s friend Georgie, a marching band nerd so filled with school spirit that she honks like a swan as she races through the halls in her tall hat and epaulets; and their classmate Clover, one of those guys who may or may not be gay but whose overly developed sense of irony probably gets him beaten up by the football team anyway. Forty years ago, What I Love About Concrete would have been labeled “regional cinema,” not “underground filmmaking.” But these days the world is shrinking so fast that any movie with its own distinct sense of place might as well be underground.