Firstly, I just want to apologize to Anthony Oliverio for the delay on this review for his directorial debut “Prairie Dogs”. This is three weeks overdue mate (haha), but with such a hectic schedule this is the first chance I’ve had. Thanks very much for sending me an online screener, I really appreciate it. Prairie Dogs, is a psychological Crime/Drama about two lifelong friends seeking redemption against the depleted backdrop of Urban America. Sal (played by Alexander Bell) and Gino (Joe Sofranko), have recently come home from a tour of duty. Sal is struggling to find his place in society, while Gino no longer has the use of his legs and depends on Sal in order to survive. The duo’s path collides with Becky (Eva Swan), Gino’s ex-wife along with her violent, and obsessive boyfriend Billy (played by Bill Oberst Jnr). It seems the boys have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire, and nothing will ever be the same again.
This is another film with Bill Oberst, that I didn’t have to inquire about in order to see. Tony contacted me right off the bat, and asked if I’d be interested in checking it out. I didn’t know much about it prior, but anything with Bill in it is worth a look. He’s fast becoming one of the best character actors in the world of independent film. Now bear with me, I apologize in advance if I don’t get this review perfect (haha). It’s been about a month since I watched it, and unfortunately I don’t have time to re-visit it right now.
Let’s begin with some of the cast. At first glance, I thought Alex Bell looked a lot like Brandon Lee R.I.P (star of the cult film “The Crow”). As I was watching the film I couldn’t help but notice the brooding comparison between the two, so much that it distracted me somewhat from his performance. Most of his acting was on point, but a few of the more intense scenes that were supposed to be motivated by anger fell short. The same can be said about Joe in some of his scenes. It could be because of some less than stellar writing, or it could just be that the character Gino didn’t project much. He wasn’t overly bitter, or drowning in his own sorrows over what had happened to him during the war, and that much was good I guess. On the other hand though, he didn’t seem to have any direction as to how he was going to get his life back on track. His scope rest solely on the wishful thinking of a happy reunion with his ex Becky. When that didn’t go according to plan, he had nothing else and essentially his arc was a dead-end. The films stronger scenes involve Eva and Bill. Sometimes together, as well as solo with some well written anecdotes here and there. Bill wasn’t highlighted enough for my liking, but he still managed to deliver some disarming lines when conversing with Gino in a motel room in the final act.
Majority of the camera work was well conceived, and the panning was nice and smooth. My issue was that a few scenes on the city streets that were well shot just didn’t amount too much. Other than perhaps showcasing working class America, so the audience knows what kind of life these guys have come home to. The duality between particular shots and slices of narration in the first act was also a nice touch. For the most part I’m not a fan of that back and forth. I prefer to see an entire scene all the way through without any contrast, however in this case it fit. The film has a sort of progressive soundtrack. Some of it hits the mark and some of it doesn’t. The one piece of music I really enjoyed was just a simple acoustic guitar song. It sounded a little Southern, but not in that twangy “Deliverance” down the bayou type of way (haha). I can’t remember it as well now because it’s been a while. Some of the dialogue is interestingly written and feels quite natural. The back and forth between Billy and Becky, along with fanatical altercation between Billy and Gino are two parts that come to mind. Unfortunately, the success of the film, at least in my mind, comes down to the in’s and out’s and the underlying dynamic of the friendship between Sal and Gino, and that to me is the part that doesn’t hold up. When the films about friends and you don’t buy that relationship there’s nowhere to go.
I’ll start off with a couple of the technical issues. There were some low audio levels in the dialogue along with color grading/saturation inconsistencies. Each to their own when it comes to what you can hear and what you can’t, but I’m extremely fussy when it comes to audio and I missed some sections here and there because of that. The harsh daylight shots on the street versus the overly dark, shadowed scenes in the bar totally contradict each other. Maybe that’s the point, but I think an extravagance of any one thing can ruin a particular look or feel, and in this case its difficult to concentrate on the scene. The opening of the film throws you straight in the deep end to see if you can tread the murky waters. It’s very jumpy, shot and edited very hastily with a detached narration from Sal about something or rather. If my memory serves me correct, it was a little about him and Gino mixed in with the notion of feeling lost. Immediately it’s like whoa, let me catch up, but this thing hasn’t even started yet. What’s the relevance of this coming out straight away in the first five minutes?? It’s not like what follows is a multitude of memories or flashbacks for the viewer to see, it doesn’t even have it’s place yet. The narration doesn’t clue you in on anything, at least not properly. It could have been done away with and replaced with a few flashbacks to give it more significance.
I had a hard time finding anyone to like in this film and that’s the biggest hindrance. Sal was very egotistical and selfish. I understand that’s probably why he had nothing in his life except for Gino. The fact he had nothing else was probably why he knew he could get away with acting like that. Given how much these two had been through together, their friendship was emotionally flat. Their bond was maintained through fear and mostly a demeaning attitude from Sal towards Gino. After such a tragic thing happening, in particular to Gino, that saying all you can do is laugh might be a true one but surely there’s a point you say cut it out. Sal calling Gino a cripple and saying Who are you? What have you got left?, She doesn’t love you, all seems unnecessary. I know those are probably his own misgivings and that’s why he’s lashing out, it’s just not nice to watch someone like that. In a film like this, quality Drama is key and it’s unbelievably difficult to excel in for the best most experienced directors, so I commend Tony’s attempt regardless. I had a bit of chat with him about the film and it seems to be quite personal, and maybe holds a certain weight for him so I can respect that.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get into Prairie Dogs, for the simple reason that I didn’t buy, nor did I care for the friendship between Sal and Gino. Now not everyone is going to feel the same way, so please support the film anyway. It’s production value of $65,000 is pretty solid, I thought majority of the cast were decent, some of the music was quite good and I found certain scenes engaging. On the other hand, it does have some weaker writing and character reactions, as well as audio and color inconsistencies. Unless the story is personal to you, I find it lacks any real substance. I didn’t learn anything about PTSD, friendship, or adjusting to the things life throws at us. All things that I should have been learning while watching Prairie Dogs. It’s fast paced though, and has a short running time so maybe if you’ve experienced something similar you might find something here that I didn’t. Thanks again Anthony and Sorry I couldn’t praise it more.
My rating for “Prairie Dogs” is 4.5/10