Feature film debut by writer-director David O. Russell, more widely known for Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings. This independent movie was shot on 16mm for $80,000, then taken to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in 1994 where Miramax purchased it for national theatrical distribution. The band Morphine provides a smoky, mysteriously intense soundtrack.
No, this movie is not about masturbation, though it does feature it more than the average picture. Yes, it is about incest, but not in a cliched or exploitatively jokey way. Primarily, it is a tender yet cruel and distinctively different coming-of-age story set in middle America.
Jeremy Davies, who you probably know as the cowardly Upham from Saving Private Ryan, plays the protagonist, Raymond, stuck at his parents' house on a summer break from college. His dad, a traveling salesman, is committed to hawking self-help tapes across the country, so Ray has to help his mom get through the day with her broken leg.
What I love about this one is the suburban character details you don't see anywhere else. The girl who's too young for the boy she honestly doesn't know if she likes or not. The math geeks who drink, smoke, and drive like maniacs. The dog who won't stop staring at a human touching what he himself licks. All hilarious, all heartbreaking.
Russell employs an interesting editing technique in several scenes that I assume was devised at the screenplay stage. The camera will abruptly cut to several minutes forward in a scene while holding on the same character, avoiding a boring or awkward moment. For instance, Ray and his not-girlfriend are sitting on the grass fumbling through a conversation. Tentatively, he kisses her. Suddenly, they are mere steps away from second base, while the dog eats their groceries unnoticed. Most storytellers would linger on the first kiss. Russell is wiser and less sentimental.
Eventually, when the Oedipal moment does occur, it is completely organic and plausible. Plenty of shame and nervous humor is uncovered in the aftermath, in which Ray tries to make his little life function within new boundaries. But, as with most things, he's not at all successful.
I once turned on the Independent Film Channel and saw Alec Baldwin interviewing Russell, who confessed that the film was a way of working through autobiographical issues. Yes, he did have a sexual experience with his own mother, and yes, his father was less than understanding about the matter. Even so, Russell seems to have grown up to be a handsome, witty, modest individual who makes challenging films that are also financially successful, on the scale of the art house or the multiplex. Though perhaps he contemplates Greek tragedy on the weekends.