I’ve always found the most frightening films are the ones that feel completely plausible, films where normal people find themselves backed into unfeasible situations with no escape. These characters often try to make up for some personal failing by sampling something new or experimental, and this ‘sin’ of exiting your daily (possibly dull) routine proves their undoing. In Gary Gardner’s film THE NYMPHETS, Joe, in a Good Samaritan moment, comes to the ‘rescue’ of two (very young) girls who have had an ID confiscated by a bouncer.   When Brittany and Allyson come back to his loft with him, he must be pretty sure this is going to be one of those real life Penthouse Letters ‘I Never Thought It would happen to me but…’ (in this day and age of clickable porn, does anyone still understand that reference?) Anyway, one guy, mid thirties, two teen girls, age… well, possibly felonious, you do the math. But things like that don’t really work out for a guy like Joe. Brittany and Allyson are just looking for a new toy, something to play with, titillate and torture. As the night wears on, they seem to challenge each other on how far they can push Joe, revealing his deepest secrets and insecurities and unraveling his life.

THE NYMPHETS is a rare film that amplifies its tension with its enclosed location (mostly inside Joe’s loft) and small cast. Each character reveals depth after depth as the film twists and dives through an emotional amusement park ride of deviance and malice. The three actors, Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans, Driven) and fresh faces Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Jordan Lane Price, have an intense connection that make you feel like you are peeking in on reality through a hole in the wall. It actually feels most like a David Mamet play, which strangely David Mamet has never really been able to do himself (make a movie that feels like a David Mamet play). It’s quick and brutal and sexy, and was one of my favorite films at SXSW. In fact, the set-up works so well, that any deviation from it feels unnecessary.

There is a short sequence in about two-thirds of the way through where the characters leave the loft to look at Joe’s motorcycle that relieves some of the tension, and although the sequence is beautifully shot and a nice change of pace, it doesn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the film (and doesn’t really propel the story forward). When they return, there is a third girl now over at the loft, whose character is really unnecessary (and pretty irritating). She brings an entirely different energy to the film and maybe that was the goal, but it changes the delicate balance that Gardner had crafted to this point and to me, almost ruins the film. THAT SAID… and this is very conflicting for me, those two flaws (distracting for one and egregious for the other) only serve to underline how near perfect the first two-thirds of the film are.

I went into The Nymphets with Sundance’s KNOCK KNOCK on my mind, a film with a similar set up (two beautiful strangers show up at Keanu Reeves’ house and sadistically mess with him. But that film has a direction and a moral, it’s sort of a cautionary tale. THE NYMPHETS exists in a moral wasteland, where everyone is flawed and there is nothing ‘decent’ to cling to. These aren’t two girls torturing because they’ve been wronged and want to make some sort of righteous argument, these are just two bored teens on a weekend night, with nothing else to do and a predilection for iniquity. Gardner’s film is full of mean-spirited girls, not there for any particular reason, they just sort of ended up there by chance, and they’re looking for fun. “There’s a saying, boys will be boys,” Gardner says, remembering his own teen years, “and I was kind of just thinking there’s no real equivalent for girls.” I had a chance to speak with Gardner at SXSW, as well actors Kip Pardue (Joe) and Jordan Lane Price (who plays Allyson). It’s funny, because it was actually one of the most fun and also antagonistic interviews I had. I loved the movie so much and yet there were a few things in it that just didn’t work for me on any level at all. But that’s what film festivals and indie film is all about. Gardner took a lot of chances and made a very bold and unforgiving film — one that has stayed at the front of my mind months later, so clearly he was on to something.

“They’re just trying to have fun and they’re in it for themselves,” he says of Brittany and Allyson, “they see the character Joe as a good time, but they’re there, you know, for themselves. And regardless of Joe’s desire they’re gonna have a good time.” So to them, Joe becomes less of a ‘love interest’ than a ‘toy,’ something to be handled and passed around and emotionally destroyed. “We are women and we have that sexual power,” Price says, “and also with our characters, at that age, you’re just realizing you have this power over a guy and, ‘how can I manipulate him?’ and, ‘Ooo this is kind of fun, I like this.’” Another film reference might be HARD CANDY, where obviously Ellen Page has a goal, but she’s also just having fun with what she can do. But both that film and Eli Roth’s KNOCK KNOCK live in a purely right/wrong world where the heroines feel they are morally blameless in their pursuit of justice. In THE NYMPHETS there is none of that, no one judges anyone, no one has righteousness on their side. “I mean I have not seen KNOCK KNOCK and we were obviously making the movie over a similar time frame,” says Gardner, “but, I think both of those movies go in a different direction. I think the consequences in this movie are more real and people will feel it more and they’ll be able to relate to these characters more.” Pardue agrees, “I really like Eli Roth movies, but like in HOSTEL, there aren’t many people in the audience who’ve killed people, but everyone in our audience has been in this situation, on some level. You’ve been in some sexual struggle, power, and manipulation”

If THE NYMPHETS feels a bit like it survives in a moral apocalypse, sometimes the set felt like there were very few boundaries as well. “There were definitely days when I felt like an object and when I felt manipulated, for better and for worse,” Pardue says, “and that’s a testament to what these girls were capable of doing and putting me through.” Price says she and Dexter-Jones went as far as they could, even on a mental level, and never held back. “There are a lot of takes where we were really, really difficult on him,” she says, “we took it to some extremes. … it’s really hard, even when the camera stops, to just deal with that constantly.” And Joe doesn’t take his torture humbly; he pushes right back on the girls, exploiting their naïveté and even playing them against each other. The whole film is a constantly shifting tension-fest, and you are never quite sure who is in control, who is the predator, who is the prey, who is the victim and who is the suspect. “What these incredible actors brought was an ability to both be aggressive and vulnerable on all sides,” says Gardner, “and really, that’s what’s fun about it, is because you could change your opinion about who these characters are from one minute to the next.”

The Nymphets
The greatest assets indie films have are premise and actors. Indie films can take something unconventional or (god-forbid) uncommercial, and explore it completely, putting a situation on screen that we would never get from a major studio. Great actors exist at all price levels, and there is really something to be said for seeing characters on screen and not recognizing them (oh, that’s Audrey Plaza from Parks and Rec, that’s Jason Schwartzmen, all grown up from Rushmore yet still playing the same character, that’s Nicolas Cage from a hundred bad films). These are actors that we have no preconceptions about, and they shine on screen. We meet them first as their characters. In many ways, THE NYMPHETS works best because it can be experienced like a great play. You are trapped in this room with these people that you don’t know, and you don’t know what they will do. Part of why it succeeds is because Gardener doesn’t give the audience really any information about who these characters are at the start. We’re struggling to figure out everybody’s background just like Joe is.

I suggested this to Gardner, and how much the film reminded me of a David Mamet play, like American Buffalo or The Cryptogram. “I thought a lot about the idea of plays,” the director says, “and I’m interested in them to a certain extent but I’m really, you know, a cinema history guy and, I think the difference between a play and this movie is a play is about presentation. You know, actors are gonna stand on a stage, and they’re gonna present an idea, they’re gonna talk about their feelings. Where a movie is different, in my approach to story telling, is it’s about behavior and watching these people participate in whatever is happening and using the tools of cinema whether to reveal something or to withhold something. That’s why movies are the best.”

I just think Gardner hasn’t seen enough good plays (and I told him that). A good play, done professionally, if it’s a modern realistic play, is exactly what he is talking about, no presentation, characters right at each other, the audience could be there or not, and if you had 16 cameras that you could film all around them you could make an amazing movie out of it. Even a non-realistic play, like something Brechtian, where a character is going to speak directly to the audience, is just using a different set of tools ‘to reveal something or to withhold something.’ Either way, in either a play or a film, the audience is only given what the director want to give them, they are creating the world. This is why, in THE NYMPHETS, when they leave the loft after setting it up so strongly as the solitary location of the film, it breaks the magic. The contained malice of the loft dissipates with the freedom of the motorcycle ride, offering the characters an escape. The film thrives when Gardner gathers these three characters together, and lets the audience witness the tides roll back and forth in this contained little wave box. The alchemy of interaction can only arise out of the push and pull of characters (and actors) stuck together learning each other’s pressure points with no occasion for flight.

The Nymphets
“Gary gave us a foundation and we could go from there,” says Pardue, “he would paint a circle and we were dots inside the circle. And as long as we stayed in the circle, it was gonna be great. And the circle, Gary’s circle, was like really big.” This involved a lot of improv and playing with the dialogue during takes, something everyone found enlightening. “I think that’s like the best thing in the world when you have that freedom,” Price says, “from day one  we did some takes that were scripted completely – and then we also did other ones that were mixed, which that was actually difficult ‘cause you leave some lines in, kind of go around, come back to some lines.   Our poor scripty, oh man, our scripty really had a rough go.” “I mean these girls would needle me in a way that like, was so… mean,” Pardue says, “what Gary wrote was beautiful, and then these girls would come and twist the knife.”

Gardner had tremendous faith in his actors, speaking at length about his working methods: “what these actors are capable of doing is phenomenal and beyond what I expected. Maybe I’m looking for a different personality trait in Brittany or Allyson’s character, and I wouldn’t actually tell the girls. I would tell Kip  ‘Hey, I really want to shake these girls up, let’s really put it to them.’ And vice versa, where you know, I would say to the girls ‘Don’t let him answer.’  The frustration that would build would be phenomenal but, to their testament, they were able to handle it, they were able to play along. … I would love to say it’s me, but it’s really them.”

At which point I can’t help but tell him those techniques are extremely theatrical, pulled right out of the Sanford Meisner playbook. That’s how you get real performances to come out of the actors themselves. Strangely, he didn’t have much to say the rest of the interview… but Pardue came to his rescue. “I’d like to think of myself as a soulful actor,” he says, “I think at this point I know intuitively when it’s working, when it’s not working and there, we could do 5, 8-minute takes, like a play, and for 7 minutes and 15 seconds I’m convinced it wasn’t working. But Gary could find the 45 seconds when it was working.”

Price agrees: “I haven’t been doing this long, but, Gary and me definitely had a lot of discussions. And he was like, ‘You’ve gotta trust me. You’ve just gotta trust me.’ Because, sometimes we would do scenes and I was like, ‘What the hell is he [Kip/Joe] doing?’ And I know he’s getting notes and we’re getting notes, but there is so much – it was so weird at times and I’m thinking, ‘This is so crazy.’ And he’s like, ‘Just trust me.’ He captured these really beautiful little moments.”

Pardue believes the magic of THE NYMPHETS is in the editing. In the industry we are all used to the language of film, but outsiders still speak the language of film whether they realize it or not. We’ve watched movies our whole lives. “This movie changes that a little bit, I think,” he says, “the way that it’s edited, the way that it moves, the way that it’s jarring.” He’s right, with the almost frenetic pace, initiated by the blink-and-you-miss-them opening credits to the insanity of the screaming contest, it feels like you are there with them, not just at the party, but partying with them, drunk, stoned, a little confused as to where you stand sexually with anyone (there is this whole tease will-they won’t-they that plays out through the whole film), and the claustrophobia.

“It’s all Gary,” Pardue says, “he knew it going in, and sometimes it was hard for us to see the forest for the trees, right? We’re in the middle of this war, thinking, ‘What the fuck are we doing? We fucked it up. I’m fucking up Gary’s movie. Oh, Jesus.’ Yet, he – I mean, shit. You said, this is like a Mamet, and that’s like the greatest complement ever to a word guy, right? Amazing. Sometimes it was hard to see that. But when I watch it, I couldn’t be more flattered that you said that.”

And actually, that is the true difference between film and theatre, it comes down to control and perfectionism. That is the reason why a really dedicated theatre person gets out of theatre and goes to film (I did it myself). You want the audience — you owe it to your audience — you want them to see the best possible version of this story. And that’s what you can do in film, as a director you can say, ‘Here’s this 15 seconds’ that was the best of that take.

It was such a spirited discussion that I was never able to broach my larger issue with the film, the unnecessary character inserted into the last third, but there it is. A great film engenders great discussion and this was the best interview I had at SXSW, even if it felt a bit like we were shooting past each other at times. What really works about THE NYMPHETS is that there is so much to talk about, even after the film ends. “We go into the movie the same way we leave the movie,” Gardner says, “it’s all about the experience of a small moment and I don’t think that you need to tell the audience what happens at the end.”

Gary Gardner’s THE NYMPHETS premiered at SXSW this last March and is currently looking for distribution. I want to also point out that the film was exquisitely shot by cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla who made an equally enigmatic short film called SEA PAVILLION that I programmed at a festival three years ago and haunts me to this day, so these were two artists destined to work together. The core cast of this film is flawless and I can’t imagine it will be long before THE NYMPHETS sees an arthouse release. In the meantime, it really needs to get back out there on the film fest circuit, because that’s the audience that is really going to dig this film. Film programmers, challenge your audience with this sexy indie pot-boiler!

BREAKING NEWS (5/15) The day after we published this article I was told by the publicist that Gravitas Ventures had picked up THE NYMPHETS for future release.  1) That’s awesome, I love Gravitas, as you know from reading my articles and 2) I can’t find it anywhere on the internet even on Gravitas’s own site so there, I’m going to say AMFM just beat Deadline to the punch…

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Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

 

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