Fewer narratives are as played out as the prickish-man-returns-home-and-bumps-into-childhood-friend-who-never-left-and-learns-to-embrace-his-past arc. It’s about as formulaic as they come. The characters are stock, the conflict is familiar, and the overall journey is the same. Of course, the reason it’s so familiar, that directors and writers keep going back there, is because it can work, and the conceit embodies a pervasive set of familiar fears: Who hasn’t wanted to flee from the small town where they grew up? Who hasn’t felt the tug of big-city superiority? Who hasn’t been a prick for it?
In this light, “Donald Cried,” the new film from producers David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride, is more of the same, complete with a self-centered protagonist called home by a family death, a long-forgotten man-child of a best friend, and the fallen star of a high-school crush. But writer/director/star Kristopher Avedisian does so much more with so much less, crafting a quiet, delicate film from a handful of small, awkward moments and some uncomfortably honest emotions. It’s a deeply funny endeavor that, despite sagging in the middle and never becoming anything close to profound, is a worthy and endearing film that achieves a lot with very little.
Peter (Jesse Wakeman) is has come home to Rhode Island. It’s his first time there in nearly 20 years, and it’s a begrudging visit: his grandmother has died and he’s the only one left to take care of her affairs, which include gathering her possessions from the nursing home where she lived and handing the family house off to a realtor (Louisa Krause) — who happens to be Peter’s high-school crush. The real catalyst for the whole film, though, is a lost wallet. Without any money, and without a car, Peter is stuck. His only option is to cross the street to his old friend Donald’s (Avedisian) house, which, for reasons that become obvious, he is hesitant to do.
Donald, for all intents and purposes, is still the teenage boy that Peter left behind: his unruly hair is slick with grease, his room is plastered with nude photos, his job is at a bowling alley, and the last of his money always goes to drugs. Not to mention the ridiculous, heartwarming smile that is always plastered on his face. He’s a character in the truest sense, at once larger-than-life and completely believable. For all his crassness — all his unfiltered social misunderstanding — his intentions are pure, through and through. What’s refreshing about Donald is that, for the most part, he is much more grounded in reality than the man-children cinema has acquainted us with (Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Adam Sandler, et al.).
The film, which unspools over the course of less than 24 hours, is a simple one. Peter wants only to get the hell out of dodge, and Donald just wants to keep hanging out and reliving the past. Eventually, though, their misadventures bring them to a place of brief, mutual understanding, where Peter can let his metaphoric hair down and unwind, take a deep (pot-filled) breath and recline into the life Donald lives everyday. Then, of course, the girl gets involved.
For as low-key as the plot of “Donald Cried” is, it’s important. The beats are, for the most part, well-timed, and the emotional turns add up. But really, the selling point of the film is Avedisian. His Donald is outrageous, a ball of earnest energy who, half the time, looks like a mischievous dog, constantly doing wrong despite wanting only to please those around him. But for all his absurdity, Avedisian keeps the character firmly grounded in the sort of awkward, uncomfortable truth that we all want to bury: for all the folly of youth, there is a pureness there well worth holding onto (that most of us ditch in favor of chasing success and social status). It’s not the most novel concept, but “Donald Cried” is far and away delightful enough to make it worthwhile.
The simplicity of the narrative also bleeds over into the rest of the film, which unspools in quiet and unshowy filmmaking — it feels like it was shot in the day it covers, and the central relationship between Peter and Donald feels as tense and aged as it should be. The quaintness also works in its favor. “Donald Cried” is a film of small moments (that is almost marred by an explosive one) and it seems intent to linger in wistfulness, in the sort of hushed sadness that never becomes a fever pitch, but is all the better for it. [B+]