Slamdance Film Review – The Sublime and Beautiful
The Sublime and Beautiful
Actor Blake Robbins writes, directs and stars in his debut indie drama The Sublime and Beautiful, a somber film about grief and the long road to psychological recovery after personal tragedy. It’s not a terribly complicated movie and it’s not too heavy on the theme or plot. Instead, this aims to be something of tone-piece and an actor’s showcase. However, the tones are regrettably mono and the performances are almost just as limited.
Robbins plays David Conrad, a married middle-aged college professor with three kids. Early on in the film we know that he is carrying on an affair with one of his students, but, besides that, he generally he seems to be a pretty decent guy. He has a good relationship with his best friend and gym partner played by Matthew Del Negro, he has a communicative relationship with his parents and he still drops his kids off for school every morning.
The opening scenes of this film are a day to day account of the usual activities of our protagonist. We see his routine, his good natured attitude towards his friends and loved ones, and of course his flaws. While Conrad avoids a family Christmas party to fool around with his young co-ed mistress, he receives a distressing call where he learns that his wife Kelly (Laura Kirk) is resting in a concussion after enduring an accident with a drunk driver that has also killed all three of their children. After she awakes, the film focuses on how the two try and pick up the pieces of their marital union while they individually fight against their anger and their sadness.
This is a difficult movie to criticize because it was clearly a labor of love and made with all the best intentions, but that doesn’t keep this from feeling like a minor-key repetition of one oppressively dower note. Robbins’ decision to portray all of the events from Conrad’s point-of-view, but also from a somewhat impenetrable distance, prevents any scene from really developing or any performance to sink past the surface of the film’s tonal implications. When we as an audience wish to understand a relationship deeper or an emotional beat from a different angle the movie pushes us away in another distracting wave of melancholia. Whatever seeds of interesting conversations or interactions between the characters that exist are washed out in the moody strings and piano score, and whenever the film approaches a moment of real drama the camera cuts to another unsatisfying time-lapse.
Even more frustrating is the fact there are opportunities for this story to be more than what Robbins has decided to let it be. The relationship between Conrad and his student, and their subsequent break up after his children are killed, is never really investigated or dealt with. Instead, like everything else, it is treated as just another bad thing that happens to this guy. His wife’s degrading mental state is only suggested in one scene, but again her problems are an added weight on our protagonist’s back.
Much of this film feels a bit like a vanity project for Robbins; a chance for him to write and direct a character study where he can mope around, stone-faced and bleary-eyed, from one minimally lit setting to another, with the intentions of making the audience feel sorry for him. Because he never allows his supporting characters to develop –becoming only extended cameos in his character’s life—their role in the story boils down to nothing more than moving objects for Robbins to either react to or against. Whether or not this was intentional, that is certainly the overall impression made.
All of the film’s failing’s aside though, Robbins has a likable face and even when his character is reacting in a selfish or unlikable way we never give up on him, which really speaks to his screen presence as an actor. The emotional climax of the film is unfortunately cut just as it begins to gain any traction but the confrontation between Conrad and the survived drunk-driver is an intense moment that’s well-earned by that point in the movie, even if it takes too much meandering to get there and ultimately doesn’t pay off. The final scene in the film is also a tender gesture, if not a tad manipulative and overly simple.
The Sublime and Beautiful is just as vague as its eight-grade-poetry title suggests but as far as actors-come-directors first-films go, it’s a relatively innocuous experience. There’s a germ of inspiration in the plot and the characters are all interestingly positioned but once the game is started nobody really advances on the board. The Malick-lite, sub-David Gordon Green cinematography is confidently presented and textural but like the film’s weepy score, it’s only used as a way to shroud the narrative in a fog of atmosphere, with the goal of obscuring or dressing the filmmaker’s unambitious storytelling.