Passenger Side is the sort of indie film that makes Sundance breakouts, such as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, seem like industriously-produced blockbusters by comparison. As a pure exercise in economy, Matt Bissonnette’s latest feature – his third low-fi venture in a row, no less – laudably demonstrates the importance of script and performance over the slicker production a larger budget invites.
As a deceptively simple story of two estranged brothers, Michael (Adam Scott) and Tobey (Joel Bissonnette), spending a day driving around getting reacquainted, Passenger Side is a pure breeze. Succeeding in large part because of a smartly selected backdrop – an ever-changing Los Angeles landscape, brimming with life at every moment – the film takes full advantage of the city’s vast beauty.
A road movie of sorts, though one set entirely in one city, we follow Michael and Tobey as they drive around some haunts of L.A. few would describe as tourist hotspots – diners and car washes – riffing on their lives and how their paths have differed so drastically. Through several sessions of prickly verbal sparring, we come to learn a lot about these brothers, and that, ostensibly, everything is not as it seems.
Its threadbare construction ensures that it lives and dies on the strength of its writing and its actors. Adam Scott shows himself a likeable and able lead, otherwise being only vaguely reminiscent to audiences in several solid bit-parts in popular Hollywood fare (Step Brothers and Piranha). Here he has to juggle a no-good brother, tranny hookers, crazy desert ladies, scatterbrained valley girls and porn stars, and while such a heft of incredulity could overwhelm some lesser-known performers, Scott pulls it off.
As the more at-home of the two brothers, Joel Bissonnette’s (who happens to be the director’s brother) Tobey is also worthwhile, pulling off the roguish likeability and subtle vulnerability needed to make the final punchline work. Their verbal jostling comes off as incredibly natural, adding hugely to the film’s dramatic and comedic frisson.
Like so many low-budget films, it overcompensates with some scripted extravagance, but for the most part the outlandish moments work; there is no sliding, increasingly bizarre scale of absurdity, just two brothers picking up a fair dose of weird as they traverse L.A. It seems clear where it’s going to go from the outset – two estranged brothers come to reunite and the dependable one pulls the dipshit one out of the doldrums – and right until the end, this doesn’t seem far wrong, yet a peculiar sting in the film’s tail ensures the film never loses its edge nor compromises the scathing manner with which it teases the conventional Hollywood road movie.
For a film that’s essentially about two people talking, Bissonnette has managed to keep his film visually interesting in a very clever way; conversations are set often against L.A. backdrops. While it’s obvious that some skilful photography and editing has been used to disguise multiple-location shoots, the overall majesty of the aesthetic and the directorial savvy applied to the project makes it easy to admire.
Of course, it’s as sparse as the endless desert they drive through, but it pulls well on the two poles of intelligence and talent – the well-read vs. the well-traveled – and how really, both sides are as neurotic and unpredictable as each other. The climactic unexpected twist is a fun little comment on how this dichotomy is not as we thought, giving it a hilarious and rather shocking crescendo to close on. Upon reflection, it’s also pretty heart rending.
Passenger Side is strictly a chamber piece. That chamber just happens to be the bustling, visually diverse landscape of Los Angeles.
Passenger Side is on limited release in U.K. cinema’s.