After a long, long wait, it’s finally here. Cotton County Boys – the story of a boy, a girl, and the countless hits to the family jewels that could only bring them together.
BUT FIRST. Every single time I begin writing a review for a film which stars Nicolas Cage, I feel compelled to lay out my devotion to the man’s body of work up-front, in the event that the fact that I am a fan of the actor may color my reaction to the film. I like to think of myself as objective and honest, but it can be hard to get past one’s predisposition toward a film, a filmmaker, or even a film genre. Objective is relative, and the best that one can hope to do is to remain as objective as possible given one’s relative biases. I, as much as any other critic or viewer, have a different set of criteria for judging a work than another person might based on these personal predilections. As I begin to write this review, I am reminded of an interview I completed with director Phil Leirness recently wherein the filmmaker noted that “many critics are resistant of becoming too friendly with filmmakers for fear they might become reticent to criticize that filmmaker’s work. The better you know someone, the better you understand their aims, their interests, their motivations, the more you admire them, the more challenging it becomes to criticize them.”
I mention this now because I am good friends with the director of Cotton County Boys, Collin Buchanan. My relationship with the director is one of many things that makes this review a difficult one to begin. This is a short film, clocking in at just about 30 minutes total. It’s also a student film; thus, the constraints of budget, time, and content all ultimately play a part in the form of the finished work. My goal, then, is to acknowledge these unique issues without letting them become excuses. Because although there is the worry that one might hold back one’s criticism because the filmmaker is a friend, or the actor is a favorite, or the book that the movie was based on changed my life when I was in high school, Leirness rightly points out the converse to these concerns: “To me, though, increased familiarity would help critics in their difficult task. After all, part of a critic’s job ought to be assessing the work within context of the filmmaker’s aims.”
With that said, Cotton County Boys is a work of genius.
Which is not to say that it’s perfect. One character’s sleep-walking seems as though it will factor heavily into the plot, but ultimately has little bearing. An emotional sequence doesn’t pack the quite the punch that was intended, despite the music trying to lead the scene. And there is, of course, the odd joke which simply falls flat.
These few complaints aside, there is a lot to enjoy about the film. First and foremost, it’s absolutely gorgeous. By the director’s own admission, “there was a definite influence by some of the Arkansas-centric people who have made it big like David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols.” This is especially clear in beautiful shots like an opening scene where one of the main characters stands in the early morning sunlight, inhaling deeply. It’s not difficult to imagine that crisp air; the warmth of the moment comes through easily in images like this. The only other experience I have with low-budget filmmaking, really, comes from church-produced Christian films such as Pray and Flywheel. In addition to a lower quality of video, these films tend also to traffic largely in simplified long shots of the actors and a sometimes hilarious lack of focus. I have considered myself a fan of the Kendrick brothers, creators of the Christian films Facing the Giants and Fireproof, because their work has seemed to increase in quality with each successive outing – not only because they have more money to make their films with but because the Kendricks are becoming increasingly comfortable with the filmmaking process. They are clearly finding their footing, and being able to witness that with each new release is a joy even if I disagree with their ideology.
In contrast, Cotton County Boys is sure-footed and playful right out of the gate. It has a smart sense of comedic timing, letting some shots linger until the fade or setting others off in slow-motion. One of my favorite scenes has a secondary character (who is never seen again) drive by the main characters in slow-motion as they glare suspiciously at one another. It’s a small moment, but it’s very funny and typical of the off-kilter aesthetic that the movie is breeding. It’s purposely awkward, intentionally strange, and though it might be difficult to maintain that sort of balance without falling into total absurdity, the film mostly manages to walk the line without issue.
The humor, by the way, varies from the broadly comic to the coolly understated. The plot concerns three brothers – Terrell Case, Levi Agee, and Lynnsee Provence (Shotgun Stories) – who need to save their home from foreclosure and decide to do so by constructing a video to send in to “America’s Most Hilarious Moments”, a show loved by their mother, played by Natalie Canerday (Shotgun Stories, October Sky). They set about doing whatever injurious things they can think of to one another, sure that in the next broken limb or fall from a roof or stepped-on rake they are going to be the recipient of the $12,000 grand prize and miraculously save their family’s home. The scenes of their ploy are necessarily out-sized and extravagant, but there are a lot of smaller moments which are often as hilarious – from a dramatic scene at the dinner table, to a discussion of technical film terms, to the tiny victories amidst endless failure. The film easily turns from brothers Bo and Sam fighting with birdhouses on the lawn of Candyce Hinkle (True Grit), to finding delight in simply the way that the characters arrange themselves on the couch.
As a man who loves the entire Rocky series for the romance alone, I certainly would have liked to have seen a better handling of the more emotionally charged moments, but that really is my primary objection to the film. If there is anything else that doesn’t quite work it is attributable to, as the director told me off the record, throwing things at the wall and seeing what would stick. It’s a student film and a breezy comedy, mostly searching to “find a happy medium between embracing cliched stuff and trying to be unique at the same time.” Cotton County Boys may not be perfect, but it is a strong indicator of the talent that all involved possess, the potential for further singular and exciting projects.