In the wake of overly saccharine movies like Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You, and New Year’s Eve, it seemed that well-structured vignette ensemble movies were a lost art. That type of story structure — perfected by director Robert Altman in films like Nashville and Short Cuts — hadn’t been duplicated successfully in years. These more recent films seemed more like attempts to get a few days of work for A-list actors rather than exploring a complex, well-plotted story.
Conception, a new vignette ensemble movie from writer/director Josh Stolberg (Kids in America, co-writer of Piranha 3D and Sorority Row), perhaps started on its much more successful approach to the style by eschewing big-name stars and paydays: while there a number of recognizable faces in the cast (Julie Bowen and Sarah Hyland from Modern Family, Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, and, my favorite, Weekend at Bernie’s star Jonathan Silverman), the cast wasn’t made by cobbling together A-list Hollywood stars looking for a quick buck and a quicker shoot — the entire film was shot in 10 days and the highest salary was $100. However, you wouldn’t expect that from the movie’s production quality, which looks just as good as any similar film with a much higher budget.
The film opens with teacher Mr. Reynolds (David Arquette) being asked by one of his young students at the end of the day the one question nobody ever feels comfortable answering for a child: “Where do babies come from?” Reynolds stumbles with the question, though some of his students seem much more aware of the answer than he suspects (when Reynolds inevitably ends up on the tried-and-true stork explanation, one of the girls asks, “Is a stork another name for a vagina?”) The film then turns to its main story, which is following nine couples on the night of — as the title of the movie implies — the conception of their children.
As you would suspect, each of the nine vignettes are very different, with the scenarios ranging from erotic to awkward. Some are married, some are not; some are happy, some are not; some have been married for quite some time, some have just met. Naturally from a story perspective some of the vignettes are more interesting than others. Ones that stand out include Tracey (Sarah Hyland) and J.T. (Matt Prokop), who are high school sophomores having their first sexual experience, after which Hyland’s character delivers a wise-beyond-her-years monologue on the likely failure of most high school relationships. Another is Mark (Alan Tudyk) and Gwen (Jennifer Jostyn), who are going through the post-pregnancy intimacy issues that came with their six-week year old baby, along with Gwen’s body image issues. As I said, not all of the vignettes are as strong. In particular, one of the weaker vignettes focuses on Tommy (Tim Griffin) and Gina (America Olivo) whose main storyline seems to be focused on whether or not you should shower before sex — a discussion that would zing a lot more if it were written by Woody Allen as one of his nebbish arguments.
Other characters play with our expectations, such as Eric (Aaron Ashmore), who start out as a blatant stereotype of the boneheaded “I watch ESPN all day” male (that’s not to say he’s an unrealistic character), but that doesn’t mean Stolberg is content with keeping him as a stereotype. Tiffany (Julie Bowen) also has more to her than the “liberated cougar” she wants to appear as since it’s clear she has some deep-rooted issues with her aging. There is also the lesbian couple, Tay (Pamela Adlon) and Nikki (Moon Bloodgood), who speak about their childhood expectations of their lives on the night they artificially inseminate.
Impressively, all of the vignettes entirely take place in small, enclosed spaces — either a bedroom, an apartment, or a car — which limits the characters to their own spaces and forcing them to confront their various issues together (there’s no meddling friends or relatives in this movie, which is a nice breath of fresh air). In fact, one of the strengths of the film in comparison to other recent stabs at the vignette ensemble comedy is that Stolberg doesn’t try to shoehorn the characters into each others’ stories to be cute. Besides a limited use of split screen to show thematic connections between the scenarios, there is only one connection between all of the stories — which I won’t spoil since it’s very clever, so I’ll leave it to the audience to discover.
A talky, reflective film like Conception is the perfect example of a movie that was made for the strengths of VOD. Like Newlyweds — another Tribeca Films release — Stolberg demonstrates that it’s possible to make an entertaining, meaningful film on a very small budget without huge names and not sacrifice quality. It’s refreshing to see that VOD movies won’t be limited to the type of bottom-of-the-barrel movies that polluted the direct-to-video market in earlier years. Let’s hope other directors follow Stolberg’s lead.
By the way, writer/director Josh Stolberg will be doing an interview about the movie with Movie Buzzers, so we’ll be posting that soon!
Rating: While some of the vignettes are stronger than others, the entire package makes this movie well worth the reasonable VOD price (8/10)