See You Next Tuesday and the underground among us

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From See You Next Tuesday
  • From See You Next Tuesday
Yesterday afternoon I was riding a crowded bus, and some of "those people" were sitting a few rows behind me. They were two men of about 40, openly drinking cans of beer and talking so loudly that everyone on the bus could hear their conversation. When I got on they were sharing dirty jokes, but soon they started speculating in earnest about the nature of incest and who would be compelled to do such a thing. Then the discussion drifted into unhappy childhood memories: they were half-brothers, we all learned, who had been taken away from their mother by the state on grounds of negligence. They were raised with the help of social service agencies, on which they continued to rely when they ran out of money and food.

Everyone has encountered people like this, typically while taking public transportation. People who seem unable to distinguish between private and public space, who never mastered the most basic social skills, who chronically make strangers uncomfortable yet don't understand why. You can tell that they're not drug addicts or developmentally disabled. They belong to some category of mental illness that few people wish to deal with long enough to understand. Few people challenge our sympathies like this: clearly they're victims of something, but the sheer unpleasantness of their company has a way of stymying the impulse to reach out to them. And so most people simply bide their presence, like a bad odor, for the short time they have to share a bus or supermarket checkout line, taking care not to make eye contact in the hopes they'll disappear. Surely there's some saint out there who protects them, we think.

"Those people" are worthy subjects for narrative art, which has the power to naturalize topics that people are afraid to confront in real life. Movies are especially powerful in this regard, as seeing something with an audience approximates what it's like to encounter it in public life. Not long after my bus ride, I attended the closing-night film of this year's Chicago Underground Film Festival, See You Next Tuesday. That movie depicts a young woman similar to the men who alienated the rest of the bus. Friendless, naive, invasive in her conversations with strangers, and given to spells of aggressive behavior and childish acting out, she's one of the most difficult people I've seen in a movie in some time. And yet Drew Tobia, who wrote and directed the movie, and Eleanore Pienta, who plays the disturbed woman, invest so much care in the characterization that one wants to know her.

In its opening moments See You Next Tuesday seems to promise a familiar comedy of discomfort (a subgenre I considered a few weeks ago), introducing the character in a long take where she stares open-mouthed at her supermarket job. The woman is in the final weeks, if not days, of her pregnancy, yet she refuses to go to a doctor and gets upset at anyone who suggests that she does. After a fight with her mother (her only ally, apparently), she quickly unravels, and the movie approaches the psychological horror of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Like that film, Tuesday locks the viewer into a disturbed character's head space, generating terror from the possibility it will erupt upon the world at large.

Appropriately the film often transpires in unnerving close-up. We cannot avoid Mona's behavior, but we can come to anticipate it and make allowances for it. In one of the more surprising developments, Tuesday remains funny even as the character becomes less of an Other. There's something genuinely (as opposed to sickly) funny about her childish obstinacy; it's so out of step with the behavior around her that it seems an intended punchline in the greater human comedy. The same can be said of Mona's mother, a recovering addict who was likely using while raising her kids, and Mona's sister, a layabout would-be artist who's internalized much of Mona's worst behavior.

These characters fit right in at an underground film festival, though the film depicts an underground more closely aligned with Dostoevsky than punk rock. Last night's crowd seemed to admire Tuesday's sympathetic trip to the lower depths (the film won the festival's Audience Award later that evening). I hope the film gets to play to more mainstream audiences, who might benefit from its perspective.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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