Beside Still Waters, the first feature co-written and directed by actor Chris Lowell, is the definition of an indie gem that almost slipped through the cracks. It was shot a few a years ago and has been appearing at festivals since October 2013, gaining some strong praise from critics and audiences but not making a particularly big splash for whatever reason. This past August Tribeca Films decided to distribute the film, likely in part because the film’s Kickstarter campaign (to put the finishing touches on the film and get it on the radar of distributors) in May received more than triple the amount of money that Lowell was looking for. Clearly, there were hundreds (thousands?) of people who wanted to see this movie. If those people haven’t gotten a chance to yet, they don’t know what they are in for because Beside Still Waters is probably an even better film than they expected.
Daniel (Ryan Eggold) is selling his parents’ summer lake house after their recent death in a car accident. He invites all of his friends who used to party in the house for one last orgy of alcohol, sex, drugs, and, most of all, memories. First to arrive are smartass slacker Tom (Beck Bennett), reality TV “hunk” James (Brett Dalton), high school sweethearts going through marital issues Abby (Erin Darke) and Martin (Will Brill), and free spirit Charley (Jessy Hodges). But Daniel is especially awaiting the arrival of his former girlfriend Olivia (Britt Lower), although she shows up with her fiancee, Henry (Reid Scott). Henry’s presence derails Daniel’s plan to win Olivia back by overwhelming her with booze and nostalgia, and while his friends are committed to helping him they struggle with their own personal issues, insecurities, and unfinished business, almost completely missing how fragile Daniel really is as a result of his parents’ deaths.
One thing that is somewhat annoying is the small selection of films that modern directors have tried to emulate — how many times are we going to see romantic comedies that riff on Annie Hall or Manhattan, for example? — when there are dozens of other classic film concepts that are ripe for inspiration. Beside Still Waters shares its DNA with The Big Chill, though it’s a younger (and obviously a more contemporary take) on the idea of longtime friends reuniting after a tragedy to party and confront unresolved issues from their shared past. It’s a concept that isn’t often utilized because, frankly, I don’t think many scriptwriters feel confident in creating enough distinct characters in their films. Lowell and co-writer Mohit Narang show that they’re up for the challenge, and they created a world of characters that are so well-written that the audience can easily accept as lifelong friends.
The characters in the film are in many ways archetypes, but successfully so in the sense that many people watching it will be able to relate the characters to people in their own lives in the way one does when watching a John Hughes movie. Most, if not all, of the film’s eight primary characters will see instantly familiar to you, and it’s likely their personal conflicts will reflect those you have had with your own friends as well. If you’re around the same age as the characters in the film (as I am), it’s impossible not to connect with it on a personal level.
There is a lot of joy in the film — many, but not all of the wisecracks come from the perfect delivery of Beck Bennett — but it exists about a deep-rooted layer of sadness, regret, and nostalgia — and not so much the happy nostalgia, but the painful, aching nostalgia of people who would do anything to turn back the clock a few more years. But as everyone eventually learns, trying to recreate the past often leads to more hurt. Eggold’s portrayal of Daniel’s suffering — alternating with his immature drunken one-upmanship with Olivia’s fiancee — is an award-worthy performance. Less subtly, the film also examines self-absorption and how friends might only want to be there for you in the good times. The short length of the film makes it breeze by, and although one key narrative thread between Tom and James (and Charley to a lesser extent) goes somewhat unresolved it makes sense within the context of the film. Just because the film ends doesn’t mean the relationships (and the conflicts) between these characters will also end.
Despite being a character-driven film, there is beautiful cinematography in the film (Lowell is a photographer as well as an actor). In fact, the film was visually impressive both from the standpoint of this being a first-time director and its low budget. Really, there was very little that I didn’t love about Beside Still Waters — and I’m glad that Tribeca Films picked this up because otherwise I would’ve probably missed it. You’re not going to risk making that mistake either.
RATING: As an emotional character-driven comedy/drama, Beside Still Waters is worth seeking out (8.5/10).
Beside Still Waters will have a limited theatrical release on November 14, with a VOD release to follow on November 18. Check out our coverage of the red carpet and interviews with the director and cast here!