down and out with the dolls

2001

Written and Directed by: Kurt Voss

I guess it is precisely when you have low expectations that you become open for something to really surprise you. That was the feeling I had as the credits rolled on this film. On paper it doesn't seem that promising, and indeed for the first ten minutes or so you'll be asking yourself what the hell you've gotten yourself into.

In the end though, it delivers in ways you won't expect. This film has "cult classic" written all over it.

Down and Out with the Dolls traces the very brief rise and fall of all-girl rock band The Paper Dolls. Reggie, Kali and Lavender are friends who have a three-piece chick band and are going exactly nowhere. Fauna breaks up with her loser, Eurotrash boyfriend and finds herself ejected from her goth band (The Snoggs) and her house all at the same time. In desperation, and seeing the potential in Kali's friendship with up and coming punk rocker Levi, she decides to be lead singer for the band. Thus, The Paper Dolls are born.

In order to save money to make a record and go on tour, the girls decide to live together in a huge house with a basement they can use as a rehearsal space. Pretty soon personal habits and creative egos start clashing, which ironically makes the band sound even better, even as the four girls are falling apart personally.

Kali has her heart set on the gorgeous Levi, lead singer of The Suicide Bombers, who looks at her pretty much as a little sister. She writes earnest, heartwrenching songs that are all feeling and not commercial. She gets more and more depressed as Fauna takes her melodies, changes the lyrics and turns the Dolls into radio punk-pop. Sure, it'll sell, but is it still art?

All Fauna sees is that the Dolls could be her last crack at the big time and she gives it all she's got, bonking any guy that moves who can help the band with their careers, including Levi.

Meanwhile, Reggie the band's drummer (played by Canadian indie artist Kinnie Starr) has experienced a kind of sexual awakening. Bored with Mulder, the guy she's seeing but only intermittently sleeping with, she's hit on one day at the skate park by another girl and sees a whole new world opening up. Reggie, finally wanting sex now she's discovered women, proceeds to sleep with half the girls in Portland, which gets the goat of both her boyfriend and Heather, the girl who first picked her up. The two jilted lovers plan a kind of revenge on Reggie that backfires dramatically.

Valentine works in her boyfriend's second hand record shop. They're a happy couple. He asks her to move in with him, plans that are derailed by the Dolls' plan of living together. Eventually his jealousy of her burgeoning career almost causes them to break up. Val, the only cool head of the bunch, acts as a kind of narrator for the film, charting their successes and failures, even her own, with a sly, droll humour that works well in the context of the film.

Each frame of this rocking, irreverent indie pops out at you like a frame from a comic book. The characters, like in your average comic, are fairly broadly drawn, hitting but not overabusing familiar caricatures.

I was a bit disappointed with the return of the promiscuous lesbian cliché (considering Reggie's disdain for having sex with Mulder, I really can't call her bisexual), but this is mercifully balanced out by Fauna playing the heterosexual equivalent. Somehow amongst Fauna's blow jobs and fucking around she manages to make Reggie's philandering seem almost innocent, like a kid playing with new toys on Christmas morning. Reggie doesn't see how she could possibly be hurting anyone, even though as Heather points out, the second Reggie realised she was gay, she started acting a bit like a guy.

My favourite character in the movie though has to be Kali. Besides being incredibly cute, it was hard not to empathise with her fierce unrequited love and her save-the-world songwriting. She's honest because she doesn't know any other way to be, and it gets her into all kinds of emotional trouble. We know she has to grow up and become her own person, and the growing up process turns out to be particularly ugly.

Eventually the Dolls land a record deal, make a record and are on the verge of breaking through. They decide to hold a huge party at their house (nicknamed The Doll House of course). Throughout the drunken debauchery every character goes through the wringer, except perhaps the blissfully unaware Reggie, and new levels of gross-out comedy are reached (the leftover alcohol in the blender the next morning still makes me queasy thinking about it). The next morning all we're left with is broken friendships, violence, hangovers and a dead body in the basement.

It's a pretty well-worn formula with few twists, but Down and Out with the Dolls understands the basic concepts of indie filmmaking. Give us decent acting, characters with depth and a story we can get into and stuff like shaky cameras and bad lighting stops mattering after about two minutes. It's not exactly poetry, and the music the girls play isn't great (not half as good as the music in Prey for Rock and Roll for example), but it's the kind of film that will have you shaking your head afterwards and saying "you know, I expected awful, but that really didn't suck." It's a backhanded compliment I know, but it seems appropriate.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com