If you thought that you had the worst family relationship in existence, your clearly haven’t seen Trash Fire.
Let’s bitch it out…
Writer / director Richard Bates Jr made it clear in both his introduction as well as his post-screening Q&A that he’s using Trash Fire to work through some issues. Bates Jr, the writer / director of Fantasia Festival favourite Excision, has never made a mainstream horror film, though Trash Fire may be his most commercially successful venture to date. Starring marquee friendly actor Adrien Grenier (of Entourage fame) as well as genre vets Fionnula Flanagan and AnnaLynne McCord, the film mines familiar territory for anyone who has suffered through a toxic relationship or a painful visit with the in-laws.
The premise is simple: Owen (Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) have been in a ronly relationship for three years. They live together, have bad sex regularly and are generally caustic to each other. The first third of the film introduces all of their issues, from Owen’s disinterest in making nice with her friends, his dismissal of her judgemental religious brother and her inability to refrain from nagging him about every little thing. The biting one-liners are rude, crude and pretty damn funny, particularly since neither Owen nor Isabel feel the need to be diplomatic or spare their partner’s feelings.
Following a particularly awful encounter with Isabel’s brother Caleb (Matthew Gray Gubler) that leaves Isabel ostracized from her family and revents her impending pregnancy, Owen takes drastic steps to convince his girlfriend that they should keep the baby. He acquiesces to her first demand – apologize to Caleb – but balks at her second: make peace with his estranged family. He hasn’t spoken to or seen his disfigured sister Pearl (McCord) or tyrannical grandmother Violet (Flanagan) for years following the accidental fire he set as a teen that claimed the life of his parents.
The remainder of the film slowly peels back the layers of Owen’s secret family history. Violet is even worse than Owen makes her out to be: a religious zealot with a penchant for salty language and, as played by Flannagan, the character who steals the film the moment she appears onscreen. Flannagan is clearly having a ball playing such a mean spirited character; her facial expressions alone are worth the price of adims ion. Television star McCord has the trickiest role in the film. We’re repeatedly told that Pearl has third degree burns on over 80% of her body and lives as a recluse, so she only appears in the shadows, a fleeting apparition that in one memorable long, slow pan haunts the bedrooms of the others in the middle of the night. When the special make-up used for her burns is revealed during her dramatic confrontation with Owen at the end of the film, it is well-done, despite the obvious budget limitations (it is pretty evident that her chest and hands have not been outfitted with prosthetics).
This leaves Trimbur and Grenier as our audience surrogates. Over the course of the film there’s a slight shift in personality that finds Owen become more sympathetic when they arrive at Violet’s house, which stands in stark comparison to his deplorable attitude in the first third of the film. Grenier, too, seems to be enjoying the opportunity to play up his inner asshole, biting into Bates Jr’s insults with relish. Trimbur has the difficult balancing act of making Isabel a likeable shrew (one wonders why she’s stayed with Owen for so long, a fact that is arbitrarily waved away with a line about not choosing who you fall in love with). Isabel fades into the background somewhat lat er in the film; she is more of a pawn for the elderly woman to play with and the instigator of Pearl and Owen’s reunion.
Now an experienced genre/cult director, Bates Jr has a clear visual style, favouring direct address close-ups of his actors during their caustic speeches in order to maximize the discomfort for the audience. In the Q&A afterwards, McCord relayed a story that Flanagan took the role in part because she admired the script’s candidness: this is a film in which there is only text, no sub-text. Every character is literally conveying their feelings directly rather than try to couch them in niceties. It’s a refreshing approach that works because it is so relatable to audiences. Family and love can be painful due to its proclivity for cutthroat emotional honesty. Hopefully for most viewers this doesn’t manifest as violence like it does in the film, particulately if that violence includes someone sitting on a toilet with a snake inside (which is easily the film’s most suspenseful and squirm-inducing scene).
Bottom Line: The candid, abrasive characters and dialogue in Trash Fire are frequently painful, uncomfortable and very, very funny. If audiences can latch on to these relatable experiences and appreciate the camp of the performances (particularly Flannigan’s), Bates Jr will likely end up with a decent sized hit on his hands.
Trash Fire does not currently have a distributor or a release date, but you can check out a clip of the film below: