JHU Film Festival directors Jason Shahinfar and Virginia Lee first heard about Josh Koury's Standing by Yourself after receiving a drunken late-night call in September from a former Hopkins student and Film Society member living in New York. The telephone soon passed along to the film's director, Josh Koury, and eventually a review copy made its way to Baltimore.
The incident probably would have been forgotten if the movie hadn't been so damn good. College film festivals get inundated with senior thesis projects all the time, but precious few are even half as potent as Koury's 2001 project for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Koury's movie is shot predominantly on digital video and documents the life of suburban New York teen outsider Josh Siegfried and his friend, Koury's younger brother Adam. Much of the movie happens in the back of a car or at various sites in a town pockmarked by strip malls and other suburban detritus. Drinking- and pharmaceutically-induced episodes (including Tussin) are fully realized on the screen, while local authorities attempt preemptive strikes on the relatively harmless duo by following them and kicking them out of public places.
These trouble-making events are the frames, not the essential matter, of the film. The narrative revolves around the evolution of Siegfried, who starts out as a conventional-looking suburban kid with a feral, tough-guy posture and racist commentary. He's sophisticated enough to talk about American History X (and his mom's sophisticated enough to talk about Mallrats), but the Hollywood moralistic tone of that Ed Norton film doesn't seem to be the part that touches him. Instead, he is fascinated by a cool scene featuring one of the skinhead characters.
Jail time breaks up the real time of the film without any immediate consequences on the story itself, apart from Siegfried's drastic dress change. Suburban gear gets dropped for a mohawk, tighter pants and a ridiculously retro punk getup. For Siegfried and the movie, it also happens to be the beginning of a harrowing decline. Siegfried's new costume doesn't suit his abrasive aesthetic and his homophobic ways well, and the camera, especially Koury's black and white long mug shots, continues to catch him as a person disembodied from his presentation, with eye shots making him look as though he's increasingly on the verge of tears.
The younger Koury is permanently engaged in a kind of parodic, mock-important caricature of the people he talks about. The funniest part about these send-ups is that everyone Adam Koury caricatures is relegated to the same goofy voice. The teen seems to place more attention and alertness to the presence of the camera, so it takes longer to get to know him. As he begins to distance himself from his friend Siegfried, the sincerity of their previous friendship and the implications of its loss, particularly for Siegfried, becomes more clear.
When filmmaker Koury invites us into his home and his complex family life, it also becomes clear that this is no ordinary documentary. By implicating himself in the story and questioning the influence he has on the proceedings of the two key figures, Koury adds his own persona to its emotional whirlwind.
Since the JHU Film Fest received a copy of the film, Standing by Yourself has begun to make the rounds at bigger festivals, landing a U.S. debut at Slamdance, followed by an appearance at the New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF) last month. After the latter event, Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Press called Koury's movie "the kind of feature Kids director Larry Clark might make if he quit exploiting teens and tried to understand them." The argument is equally apt, I think, if one substitutes Kids for Real World and Larry Clark for MTV.
But does Josh Koury exploit Josh Siegfried and his family and friends? I don't think so, but it is useful also to compare this picture to the movie-within-a-movie of Todd Solondz' Storytelling, in which Solondz offered a biting critique of the Derrida-talking poseur documentarians who affect at engaging a kind of suburban anthropology through their filmmaking. One of the only truly sad parts of the sardonic and bitter Storytelling was a scene in which documentary subject Scooby (Mark Webber, also playing a libido-less teen who doesn't seem to care about anything) walks in on a screening of the film about himself before a privileged audience who are laughing hysterically at the depiction of him and his family on screen. Scooby, who imagined himself a future TV star, was actually a victim of the callous power of an exploitative camera.
This juxtaposition made me wonder what Siegfried or Koury's mom would think about being in a theater full of people watching a movie about them. Film, when it doesn't make its subject look much better and cooler than they really are, is capable of a level of shame more powerful than the most embarrassing personal photo or journal entry let loose on the world. It is kind of like the monster, lurching out of a screen, that Mrs. Koury recollects in a monologue about a nightmare of parental anxiety and parental capacity that ends the film.
This movie is not pretty, but it is honest, which is why it succeeds so well in presenting characters we can care about. Koury is able to depart from the trappings of anthropology because Standing By Yourself is a family film, a home movie in its most fundamental sense. Koury so obviously cares about his subjects that the risk in depicting them realistically is palpable, and for that we can applaud him.
Josh Koury will be present and available to answer questions at the screening of his film on Saturday, April 13 at 6 p.m. in Shriver Hall. Standing By Yourself will be followed by two more wonderful, but very different, movies about kids: Iranian filmmaker Ali Shah-Hatami's Shrapnels in Peace at 8 p.m. and David Gordon Green's gorgeous George Washington at 10 p.m.