I'm happy to say one of the films I was most looking forward to this year actually lived up to my expectations -- and though it's still very early in the festival, Bart Got a Room is easily my personal favorite so far. It's not complex, it's not much different from other nerdy-teen-needs-date-for-prom flicks, but it sure as hell packs a ton of heart and has a lot of fun. It's alive, it's colorful, it's got well-written characters and more than a handful of memorable scenes; if I had to describe this film in one sentence, my pitch would go something like: Picture a contemporary version of Brighton Beach Memoirs if it featured an only child and was set in South Florida. That's Bart Got a Room.
Danny's (Steven Kaplan) a skinny Jewish kid with low self-esteem, eccentric, over-protective parents and no prom date. While he can easily take his best friend Camille (Alia Shawkat), Danny would rather take a girl he might have a romantic chance with. Like the pretty, flirtatious blonde cheerleader he carpools with, or the reserved Asian classmate who writes exotic, pornographic poetry. He'd let his friends set him up with "that girl who sleeps around," he'd throw open the phone book and dial up a girl he hasn't seen in years -- all of which makes Danny a man on a mission. And that mission becomes even more complicated (and important) when Bart, the school's biggest loser, not only secures a prom date ... but also a hotel room. Yup ... even Bart got a room. So while Danny searches for the perfect date in order to secure what he feels will be a perfect night full of perfect moments, his newly-divorced parents, Ernie (William H. Macy) and Beth (Cheryl Hines), try to navigate the choppy waters of post-marriage dating. Ernie's a loose canon who wears a wild Jew-fro and isn't afraid to jump headfirst into his son's sexual endeavors, be them real or non-existant. His mother Beth, on the other hand, is more protective; more stable -- she's more like a parent, whereas Ernie is more like a best friend ... with sex constantly on the mind.
And then there's the film's greatest character: it's setting. Danny's problem might be a familiar one, but it gets even more complex when you're growing up in an area where the average age is 85 and the average person lives to know every little move you make. Who are you dating? Do they like you? Do you like them? Why don't you like them? Are they not pretty enough for you? Don't wear that. Brush your hair. It's like living in a town where everyone's sole purpose in life is to manage yours. And when Danny fails to produce a prom date in time, he has no choice but to reach back and hope for a small miracle. Does it come? Does he get to go to the prom? And, most importantly, will he, like Bart, also manage to get a hotel room?
Written and directed by first-timer Brian Hecker, Bart Got a Room is a charming indie comedy that feels older than it is. Considering the auto-biographical tone, Hecker finds a way to set the film in the now, but make it feel as if you're looking through a window to your childhood ... if you happened to be a Jewish male with wacky parents and more anxiety than you knew what to do with. Macy and Hines both shine in their roles, but the real kudos have to go to newcomer Steven Kaplan, who brings a great retro vibe to this performance -- kind of like watching a very young Patrick Dempsey or Jonathan Silverman. He's awkward in all the right places, but not to a point where it becomes "his shtick" (like with Michael Cera). It's a sort of natural, good-guy sincerity, and he leaves you feeling good.
In fact, the movie itself leaves you feeling good -- real good. And, fingers crossed, Brian Hecker might just be on his way to becoming a modern-day Neil Simon. Bart Got a Room doesn't rely on major set pieces to woo its audience; instead, it attempts to tap into a part of you looking to escape back to a time when the little moments were more important than the big events ... even if it took you a few years to figure that out.