Published Apr 01, 2000The Dogme 95 manifesto, created by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, may be the best thing that happened to filmmaking in the 90s. In the year 2000, it looks as if it's turned into a license to produce misguided failures like Carl Bessai's debut feature, Johnny. This Toronto-made drama about squeegee kids follows most of the Dogme rules (natural light, hand held cameras, no optical effects), and breaks one of them big-time (it has a soundtrack by Claustrophonics and the Headstones), but all of that is beside the point if the resulting film is pretentious and ham-fisted.
Vancouver director Bessai shot Johnny in various downtown Toronto locations during 1999's crippling snow-storm, and it starts out like a "kitchen sink" account of the lives of a close knit group of street kids. The acting is a little stilted and under-rehearsed, but I initially admired the attempt to tell a story about dispossessed Canadian youth. It was beginning to remind me of the upstart quality of Goin' Down the Road, and then the hokey contrivances started creeping in. I soon realised that this film would like to have more in common with The Last Temptation of Christ than Don Shebib's modest classic.
The plot involves Johnny (Chris Martin) acquiring a video camera from a friend and using it to document the realities of the streets. Before you can say "messiah complex," Johnny's fellow squeegee kids have turned into his disciples, and he pushes them into fabricating increasingly volatile scenes when real life isn't dramatic enough. There's sort of an unfortunate parallel going on here - director Bessai is also forcing his own actors into a fabricated reality of his own making. The dialogue is so over-determined and literal (in opposition to the "shot on the fly" visual style of the film), that my heart went out to the cast, who end up looking amateurish even though they have all had some experience in front of the camera.
Bessai plans to make three more features along the same lines as Johnny, and despite his unfortunate debut, I'd still be curious to see what he comes up with next. His intentions are clearly heartfelt and he appears to have a lot of scrappiness and strong convictions. What he lacks at this point is the maturity and finesse to temper his over-the-top ambitions. But for the time being, I think there should be some kind of law forbidding first-time directors from ending their films with the main character in the crucifixion pose.