It goes without saying that many indie movies are labors of love, willed into existence through long years of struggle. But in an age when the romantic myth of gritty perseverance has become just another requisite part of the packaging, Chris Fuller, the director of "Loren Cass," stands out as an unusually committed DIY auteur.
This is a movie that has consumed Fuller, a native of St. Petersburg, Fla., for nearly half his life. Now 27, he started writing the script at 15. He began raising funds for the film at 18 and shot it in two sleepless weeks at 21. He spent a couple of years getting it ready for the festival circuit (where it premiered, to some acclaim, in 2006), and then a couple of more running the distribution gantlet before finally persuading the New York company Kino International to take a chance.
Released briefly last summer, it's out on DVD this week.
The back story makes sense when you see the film. "Loren Cass," a haunting tale of youthful disaffection in St. Petersburg, is nothing if not the expression of an obstinate vision. It opens with a terse voice-over -- "Back in 1997 . . ." -- over the image of a highway at night and a dissonant guitar note held just long enough to set nerves on edge.
In elliptical fragments, the three main characters are introduced: Cale (Fuller, acting under the pseudonym Lewis Brogan), a foundering mechanic; Jason (Travis Maynard), a brooding skinhead; Nicole (Kayla Tabish), a promiscuous waitress.
"Loren Cass" follows this zombified trio as they bump into one another, numbly groping for moments of connection that are inevitably swamped by the prevailing ennui. Cale and Jason engage in the occasional antisocial prank and some bare-knuckle brawling. Nicole brings her car to Cale's shop, and the two of them edge into a lackluster romance.
As in a Larry Clark film, parental figures are ineffectual and barely glimpsed.
Fuller seems to prize mood over exposition, images over words (the impressive 16mm cinematography is by William Garcia). The characters are uniformly tight-lipped. We never find out who or what "Loren Cass" refers to, though we do see Jason etching the words into his arm.
The film is set in the tense aftermath of the October 1996 riots that followed the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer, but the event, which seems to have thoroughly poisoned the air, goes unmentioned. Brief snatches of riot footage are glimpsed, as is, in a startling insert, the grisly on-camera suicide of Pennsylvania politician Budd Dwyer.
"Loren Cass" is not a perfect film -- its formal rigor slips into studied artiness at times -- but there's no denying its originality or its harrowing force. In the boldest and most effective gambit, Fuller and his sound designer, Gary Boggess, often divorce the soundtrack from the visuals, creating a hallucinatory effect reminiscent of the disorienting audio designs of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" and "Last Days."
The characters' driftings are accompanied by incongruent sounds (a funereal trumpet, for instance) and a collage of samples including recited poetry and fiery agit-prop speeches.
"Loren Cass" has inspired comparisons to Harmony Korine's "Gummo," another slice of lyrical nihilism. But the film it most brings to mind is "The Devil, Probably," the French master Robert Bresson's despairing portrait of a blank generation.
In outline, "Loren Cass" seems like a pessimistic variation on the alienated-youth story (Fuller cites the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer as an influence). But besides its formal daring, the film has a site-specific precision that goes far beyond the genre's typical entries.
The anonymous suburban homes, desolate parking lots and fluorescent-lighted diners of St. Petersburg, described at one point as "a dirty, dirty town by a dirty, dirty sea," are pungently evoked in a series of grimly elegant tableaux. And the film captures not just a physical reality but also a psychic one: It nails the atmosphere -- the oppressive weight and pent-up agitation -- of dead-end down time.