Café is one of those movies that leaves me wanting to know more about the people who made it: What makes them tick? How did they get into filmmaking? What might I expect from them in the future? This line of thinking happens when I've been positively provoked by a film and impressed with the skills and thinking of the people involved. (As an aside, this is not the effect that Quentin Tarantino has on me. But we'll get to that in a minute.)
This is a simple film that asks big questions like: What would it really mean if God did exist? What does he have to gain from meddling in our lives? Or, better, what do we have to gain? It's a low-budget Altmanesque tale (think of the aesthetics, perhaps, of Altman disciple Alan Rudolph diluted slightly with a hip '90s TV vibe) about the intersection of various lives in funky Philly coffee shop. Seemingly at the center of the tale are Todd, an idealistic and lovestruck barista and sometime musician, and Claire, the other barista and object of Todd's awkward affections. Claire's embroiled in an abusive relationship, however, so Todd is odd man out—and they both work for a mysterious "absent landlord," if you will, a device that instantly invokes a certain theological bent.
The café is also home to drug dealer, a writer, and Craig, a kind of hulking thirty-something Internet nerd who probably spends so much time at the café because he can't stand the snorting sounds his mom makes while she naps. If you get my drift. Oh... and Craig has mystical interactions with a teen named Elly who claims she's the creator of the computer simulation of which the café is a part.
So there's yer setup.
Right off the bat, I was simultaneously intrigued and put off by the audacity and artificiality of the first act. (And the ubiquitous false eyelashes of star Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays Claire.) But really: when a key character has lines from Shakespeare writ large on his forearm, you've got to ask, "If the Bard can do art hokey and overwrought and still do it well, why not allow others the same creative space?" And writer/director Marc Erlbaum comes through in spades, as far as I'm concerned. This story never goes quite where you expect it, and the direction, on all counts, is nearly flawless—with performances that consistently draw us in. The casting of Madeline Carroll as the godlike Elly, for instance, is genius.
So... where did Erlbaum come from? Well, he's a late bloomer, apparently, backing into indie filmmaking after several diversionary stints studying literature and working in the family bridal boutique business. (Yep.) It seems he's getting into film at just the right time in his life, however, as youth, energy, zeal, intelligence, and experience are all converging into a coherent and timely vision. Here are some snippets from the website of his production company, Nationlight Productions:
Nationlight Productions is a film and television production company focused on creating inspiring, meaningful content for mainstream audiences of all backgrounds and affiliations.
In his groundbreaking book "Hollywood vs. America," Michael Medved stated in 1993 that "the dream factory has become the poison factory." Criticizing Hollywood's glamorization of violence and celebration of immorality, he argued that our nation's ethics and judgment were being adversely affected by the images and ideas that were flashing ubiquitously before our eyes. ... He called for a new form of media, one which would inspire audiences rather than simply seduce them.
In the past several years, as one studio executive put it, "people have recognized in Hollywood that it's good business to be in the family entertainment business." A headline in the New York Times in 2006 put it more iconically: "They've Seen the Light and It is Green." Films ranging in content and style from "Napolean Dynamite" to "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" have done exceedingly well at the box office, thanks in part to their clean presentation and positive message.
Nationlight Productions creates film and television content that entertains viewers while encouraging them to delve into the meaning of their existence and make the most of their potential. Programs are not dogmatic or intended for any particular group or audience, but are based on ideas and ideals that will provoke thought and promote growth.
Erlbaum's perceptions of the tenor of the industry and audience trends jive with my own. I think there's a tremendous market for positive, uplifting small films that really make people think.
And the more I think about Café, the more I think of it. And the sadder I get that a talented filmmaker like Tarantino can't turn his talents to a more constructive end. Sure—a film like Pulp Fiction is all hip about its reflections on divine justice and such; but do we have to cover ourselves in raw sewage to think deeply? Isn't it possible to be intelligent and refined at the same that we are entertained? Erlbaum thinks so, and I agree.
But there is much deeper entertainment in Café than even those in the faith market may give it credit for. As the main thread of the plot involving Elly's machinations resolves itself in a fully life-affirming, spirit-affirming, and even Pollyanna-esque Judeo-Christian fashion, there's still the question of the writer. Think about his predicament, and the complexion of the story morphs in strange and fully mature ways. This is a film that should fully satisfy both the faith and art markets. If they know what's good for them.
As a final footnote, I also discovered while digging into the roots of Café and Nationlight that the film was reviewed a year ago by none other than my Hollywood Jesus colleague Maurice Broaddus as part of his Heartland Film Festival coverage! It turns out I edited that review at the time without ever realizing I'd see the film eventually. Lucky me! I just wish there'd been some commentary or special features on this DVD release.
Café is unrated. There's some plot-related drug use involved, some mild firearm use, and the implication of domestic violence. Call it PG and you're good. Great conversation starter.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Café.