Mumblecore style films can be challenging if the story and characters aren’t strong enough, and writer/director James Vaughan‘s “Friends and Strangers” walks the line at a dangerously close pace. This loosely-structured, talky Australian indie is billed as an “absurdist satire,” which is as good of a description as any for this wry tale of two twentysomethings who are going through the monotonous motions of life.
We are first introduced to Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) in the city. Assuming they are a couple (they are not, as they have just met), Vaughan lets the audience listen in on their boring back-and-forth exchange about photography and trash. It’s not the most interesting way to present the protagonists of a story, especially when the pair’s conversations are about nothing of any major importance. Things pick up when Alice joins Ray on an overnight camping trip that doesn’t go very well. After their initial encounter, the film jumps into the future and presents several slice of life vignettes that are awkward, surreal, and lead to a multitude of misunderstandings.
At just 84 minutes, you can feel the runtime on this one. The film seems much longer than it is, giving off a lethargic vibe not unlike the two lead characters. There’s a bit of a political subtext about Australia and colonization but it’s inserted into the story and then swiftly swept away, just like the chance encounters with several supporting characters who are the most interesting (including a young girl and her widowed father at a campsite, and an art collector who is oddly threatening). The tone shifts back and forth too, adding to the varying shades of experimental film elements.
This isn’t a piece of entertainment that’s particularly easy to like, as it plays more like a work of modern art. Watching as two perpetually uncomfortable Millennials continue to be unable to connect to others or even their own environment isn’t exactly enjoyable, but there are some funny scenarios that keep things moving (if you’re able to stick with it). The film is highly observational, with the visuals grabbing the front seat from the very weak story. The disposable dialogue is toughest thing to sit through.
While “Friends and Strangers” will not appeal to many, those who can appreciate what Vaughan is trying to do (and his confident, singular artistic vision) will certainly find a lot to enjoy.