Down the Shore
The first thing that will grab your attention when you look at the cover art for the film, ‘Down the Shore’ is the face of veteran character actor James Gandolfini. For six seasons he redefined the venerable archetype of the organized criminal bass in his award winning role as Tony Soprano. In order to continue to grow as an artist Gandolfini has followed his success on premium with a series of independent movies, of which this one is the latest example. It is a natural progression especially for a talented professional like Gandolfini always striving to build his credentials. Both premium cable and Indy films have this in common; the emphasis on telling a deeply emotional story through the expertise of the talents on both sides of the camera. For some independent movies might seem boring. Not only is there insufficient budget to include those amazing special effects and awesome explosions many expect as part of a modern movie, the stories chosen usually are such that they are not conducive to such flashy contrivances. These films are low in budget but exception in emotional impact. In the case under consideration here is a solid example of this simple fact. There are those in the critical community that deride this movie for its lack of excitement. Part of the blame for this is with the executives that decided to promote the film as a thriller. I suppose that every film has to be assigned a genre; it is human nature to need to categorize things into neatly discrete boxes. Unfortunately, the box that would include humanistic drama lies largely unlabeled. To appreciate ‘Down the Shore’ you must be open to experience a life that is different from yours yet in many way relatable to you on a very fundamental fashion.
Bailey Euler (James Gandolfini) has lived most of his years in the Garden State, New Jersey. In the summer he makes a living as the owner/ operator of a children’s amusement park located on the New Jersey shore. In the winter, such as depicted in this story, the operation is a virtual ghost town; even during the height of the tourist season the best Bailey can hope for is to scratch out a meager living. His long enduring friend is Mary (Famke Janssen), they have known each other since childhood and at one point were romantically involved but that has settled down into a strong friendship. Occasionally Bailey allows her autistic teenaged son Marty (John Magaro) to help out at the kiddie park not out of a need for help but loyalty to his mother. Bailey’s best friend is Mary’s husband, Wiley (Joe Pope), who is the owner of the property of the park and a disreputable crack cocaine addict. After establishing the dysfunctional equilibrium of this small group filmmaker Harold Guskin working with a screenplay by Sandra Jennings, introduces a catalyst to disrupt these interlocking lives. Jacques (Edoardo Costa) , Bailey’s brother-in-law, arrives on the scene with some disruptive news, his wife, Bailey’s sister Susan (Maria Dizzia), has succumbed to skin cancer and bequeathed her share of the family business to him. This is not as sinister as most flicks would have you believe. Years ago Susan had been on vacation in Europe where she met Jacques. He was an operator of an old fashion merry-go-round, part of a carnival. This experience proves quite beneficial leading to an appreciable bump in business. This boon to Bailey’s cash flow is noticed by Wiley who proceeds to demand and extra $500 weekly. Of course, the reason is to subsidize Wiley’s crack demands. The leverage the addict holds over the struggling friend lies deep in the covert recesses of their past in secrets this group has harbored for many years.
In well-established independent film form this film is fitted with the expected metaphors representing the uneven flow of a person’s life. Like Bailey’s dreams of a better life his sister has been reduced to ashes; an entire human being reduced to a volume easily contained in a small urn. Adding to the adjustment naturally required after the death of his sibling Bailey now finds himself forced to deal with a stranger with a valid legal claim to half of his livelihood. Jacques is not the villain in this scenario. He is friendly and helpful but his emotional claim on Bailey is difficult to acclimate to. Although Susan is seen in the setup and some flashback her presence softly pervades the story like a gently glowing back light not directly illuminating the scene but contributing to the overall mood of the characters. This reflects real life in a fashion that is rarely seen in the mainstream studio film; the essence of a character infused in the actions and motivations of the core characters. A simple facial expression with Susan echoes through the film as a discernible influence on thing yet to occur. By tying the past and present together the story lays the foundation necessary to make the subsequent revelations effective.
This is the first time in the big seat for director Harold Guskin. He has spent much of his career as an acting couch assisting actors find a means to hone their skills. With this move to direction Guskin takes a step back with his perspective broadening his vantage point from an individual’s performance to eliciting the best possible performances from a highly talented cast. One on the most reassuring aspect of small Indy movies like this is the dedication to the artistic expression fostered by cinema. Actors like Gandolfini and Janssen have built very successful careers in studio backed productions but the artistry they manifest requires them to seek out films that permit them to extend their rand and widen their scope. A movie like this one is an ideal venue to accomplish this laudable goal. It has been 17 years since the last writing credit for Sandra Jennings. Her script here is insightful and unobtrusive, delving into the lives of a small group of people intertwined for most of their lives through the bonds of friendship, family and dark secrets.