"IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS"
Written and Directed by Thomas Hofbauer
notes by G.L. Frank - CincinnatiFilm.com
Stick with In the Company of Strangers through unpersuasive, truncated opening scenes establishing the back story which resemble an overly expository, if well intentioned, high school educational film. It gets better, becoming an affecting portrayal of a young man's maturation through his homophobia to his humanity.
The vehicle for the improvement is strong acting by most of the central characters, situated in believable locations (much of the film was shot in a active hospice, working around the working staff and patients). Ben Perry plays Brian Nowicki, a middle class teenager whose penchant for accompanying his friends on night-time gaybashing forays leads to his arrest and sentencing to community service in a local AIDS hospice. "I'd rather go to prison" is the kid's response to his good fortune.
Initially he refuses to do more than the required showing up, sitting in the same chair until time to leave, all day, every day, avoiding even eye contact with anyone. Slowly the activities of the hospice begin to intrude on this self-imposed emotional quarantine, infecting his hostility with encroaching humanity, challenging his bigotry and ignorance. The process of drawing Brian out begins to draw the audience in. Related scenes establish more positive, preexisting relationships with women in his life (his girlfriend and grandmother), and his largely nonexistent relationship with his father.
Eventually a patient whose marriage has ended and whose son has rejected his attempts at dialogue with Brian, whose dialogue with his own father is mostly a patriarchal monologue which leads to some engrossing passages. But more engrossing is Brian's nearly hidden, changing inner dialogue with himself, his difficulty processing his increasing awareness and accepting his growing tolerance.
The film has its rough spots and can be simplistic, but overall is a commendable initial feature for Ohio independent filmmaker Thomas Hofbauer. I'd especially like to single out the generally high quality camera work throughout. In the Company of Strangers garnered two Best Feature awards at indie festivals in New York City and Telluride in 2002, and is at least as worth attention as many of the debut features selected for the "First Rites" American Independent video series from Hollywood Video. It may be that the film actually ends up usefully as a high school educational film; if so; it should prove more effective than most.
One thing Hofbauer unfortunately shares with many American high schools is the willingness to sell a portion of his product to a soft drink company, in this case Pepsi Cola, drunk often, exclusively and overtly in the film, always held or set on counters with the name or trademark directly facing the camera, and even mentioned by name ("Would you like a refill on your Pepsi?") Hopefully, by his second feature, Hofbauer will figure out how to do subtler, more persuasive product placements or, better still, attract sufficient investment that he won't need them. I hope so.
Just a word of clarification on the part of the director, Thomas Hofbauer - "I appreciate the review and the comments made by GL Frank of CincinnatiFilm.com about the willingness of a director "to sell a portion of his product to a soft drink company". In truth, this did not happen. I was able to get permission from Pepsi to use their soft drink cans in my film but this was not done for product placement in return for money. To be fair, I did try but they had no money to give. I used Pepsi because I like Pepsi and I didn't want to have to refer to a beverage in some generic manner or have to put all of the soft drinks in fake containers. My intention was to keep everything looking as authentic as possible. So, although I appreciate his comments on this subject, the placement was never done to submit to something GL Frank thought to be unsavory simply to benefit financially.
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