'Dim the Fluorescents'
Daniel Warth’s ‘Dim the Fluorescents’ has all the earmarks of a first-time film. The budget limitations are clear, the cast varies in quality, the influences are a little too obvious, the indulgences run deep, and the film has a haphazard and half-finished quality at times. However, there’s something fascinating going on here and talent bursts from the strained seems.
The movie may stumble and falter, but when the powerhouse finale arrives, the wait and inconsistencies are worth it. The indie is good. Damn good. No wonder it claimed the top prize at the Slamdance Film Fest.
Audrey (Claire Armstrong) and Lillian (Naomi Skwarna) are co-dependent friends who have likely been together just a little too long. Audrey is an aspiring actress and Lillian is an aspiring playwright. Well, technically they’re working in those fields, but they do so by creating and performing plays for the corporate sector – little pieces about workplace harassment and so forth. They take it very seriously, sometimes hilariously so, treating their underseen and underpaid work like high-pressure, high art gigs. The film follows their latest production as if it’s the work of two artists struggling to make a masterpiece. That’s often played for laughs, but the little seven-minute play about two longtime work friends confronting old demons has a tendency to bring out something deeper in the two of them, allowing them to say things to each other that long needed to be said.
If that sounds a bit heavy-handed, indeed the movie can be. Yet director Warth and his co-writer Miles Barstead tap into a raw nerve that their lead actresses are magnificent at bringing to life. The cheap-looking digital cinematography rigidly frames the characters into place in a stylized manner, but the drama is messier and more honest. The film makes satirical stabs at industry targets and has plenty of hilarious asides, but stings most when it hits on raw emotions and harsh truths. Tonally, it’s all over the place, a kitchen sink movie by a collection of burgeoning artists swinging for the fences. That can be as frustrating as it is revealing. You just kind of have to take the ride and admire the many highs while also ignoring the occasional low.
The film finds an open-wound honesty in its exploration of toxic enduring friendship. The two protagonists have love for each other as well as an untold number of years’ worth of resentment bubbling beneath the surface. The actresses are each given a certain type to play. Skwarna is the uptight obsessive who keeps the pair on track, while Armstrong is the wild and free spirit balancing a free-bird approach to life with mental illness. Each performer starts in a cartoonish place for comedy, then slowly finds a more painfully human version of the character. For Skwarna, it’s a woman desperate to control her life slowly realizing that she is hopelessly dependent on someone else to keep flourishing. For Armstrong, it’s a feature-length wake-up call about a life wasted and unfocused. Warth gives the performers time to slowly reveal their true characters. It leads to some wonderful performances, especially in the doozey of a final scene. He also just maybe lets his movie ramble on a little too long in the process.
‘Dim the Fluorescents’ is a flawed movie that nevertheless makes an impact. It comes from a group of collaborators with more talent than experience, but who show real promise. Would it likely be a better film with twenty or so minutes removed? Absolutely. As it stands, this is a movie that sneaks up on viewers and goes for the gut. It’s tough to shake off, which is rare for a debut. This is definitely worth seeking out, but it’s even more exciting to see where everyone involved goes from here.