SIFF Film Review – Grassroots
Politics are a tough subject, especially these days, when everything feels so divisive; to tackle a film project on the subject seems risky at best. Add in a story that is so quintessentially Seattle, like in Grassroots, and the odds stretch even further that you will connect with a broader audience. But if you let the politics and location fade into the background and just enjoy the characters and the story here, sometimes there is something special to be found.
Based on true events, the story of Grassroots follows the recently unemployed Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), who agrees to help his friend, the bombastic Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), as he embarks on a campaign to replace incumbent city council member Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), due to McIver’s support of light rail over the monorail.
You can’t talk about Grassroots without discussing the real Grant Cogswell, on whose story the film is based. Grant is one of the most passionate but unconventional guys I’ve ever met. The film presents him as almost a theatrical character, and while it may be a bit of an exaggeration, he really is a pretty intense and unusual guy. One of the greatest challenges the movie faces is finding a way to make Grant relatable in spite of his confrontational style. A lot of this pressure is put upon Joel David Moore (probably best known for his work in Avatar and Grandma’s Boy), who rides that fine line of being passionate and being arrogant and condescending. He is both the driving force of the story and the comedic engine.
A lot of the credit for this film must be given to writer/director Stephen Gyllenhaal. His passion for the politics of the story is easy to see, and while he might not be a household name, he is a very talented director. Stylistically, he is pretty straightforward, but he does an excellent job of allowing the story and acting performances to shine. It could have been very easy to gloss over what could’ve been just some other political election, but Gyllenhaal is able to imbue this story with the underdog theme that is sold to us every day as the “American dream.” You care about a position and an election that might otherwise have been lost to the annals of history.
Much in the way Woody Allen has used Manhattan as a character, Stephen Gyllenhaal uses Seattle in Grassroots. The film isn’t purely set here and then filmed in Vancouver, and those living in Seattle (or who are at least familiar with it) will recognize numerous landmarks and references. This is both a blessing and a curse, because while it will help the film play better in Seattle, I’m curious to see how some of the jokes and references are responded to by other cities.
I must admit that I’m a Jason Biggs enthusiast. I have been a vocal fan of all the American Pie movies. I found it to be incredibly refreshing to see him take on the straight man role here, instead of his traditional comic foil. His work provides depth to a story that might otherwise seem ridiculously over the top. I hope this helps to reinforce the notion that he is a talented actor with range, and he is given more opportunities (and no, Loser doesn’t count…there were a lot of things wrong with that movie—nobody came out looking good).
Despite being Grant’s focus, the Monorail is a bit of a macguffin to the film’s story. All that is important, really, is that Grant is a man who is passionate for an issue and wants to run for office in hopes of changing something. That is one of the postulates of the movie and the promotional campaign they’re planning to run for it—that anyone can make a difference.
This is a solid production overall, but it does have a few issues in places that could use some elaboration. One of the issues the film raises but doesn’t explore with too much depth is the topic of race in the election, with the crux being that these are two white guys attempting to remove the one minority city council member. It is played as a bit of a joke, but one that does give you a moment of pause. Also, as much of a pleasure as it is to see Lauren Ambrose and Cobie Smulders in the movie, both of their roles are really quite small. If anything, the film could probably use a larger female role…but then you’re venturing into real revisionist history, which can be problematic. I did enjoy Emily Bergl as a sidekick/true believer to the campaign, but this definitely feels like a “guys” movie.
At its core, the film is fundamentally an underdog story, which is a beloved trope in Hollywood. Taken for what it is, the film is entertaining, and who knows, perhaps it will inspire you to set out on your own political campaign.
Final Grade: B
Also, be sure to check out our interview with Jason Biggs & Stephen Gyllenhaal from SIFF.