It was the performances of Chris Schulz, Geoff James, and Emily Landham that most drew me to writer/director Christopher Flippo's homage to the smalltown life Down and Yonder, the story of two friends, Wally (Schulz) and Sugar Baby (James), as they work through the tensions of a changing friendship and the strains brought about by Wally's ever-increasing awareness that there's a great big world out there ready to be experienced.
Sugar Baby, on the other hand, is a guy called Sugar Baby. He embraces the smalltown life and is content to live the life he feels like he's been given.
There isn't a whole lot more to Down and Yonder, a rather simple film about a simpler way of life that should be celebrated precisely because Flippo has avoided turning Down and Yonder into something unnecessarily histrionic and/or overly complex. It should also be celebrated because of the naturalistic, honest performances of Schulz, James, and Landham not because they give us Oscar-worthy turns here but even more so because they don't.
Schulz has a believable, quiet charm as Wally. He's rapidly approaching the age of 30 and his heart and his mind are telling him that he ought to be living a better life... or at least a different life. Schulz doesn't have a lot of highs or lows. He doesn't really need them. He's simply a good guy who wants a better life.
Geoff James is given more range to play with as Sugar Baby, though that inevitably happens when you're tasked with playing the small town goofball, a modestly heavy almost redneck with Southern boy charms and a drawl that makes you laugh just by listening to it. James is the film's comic relief, though, for the most part, we're laughing with the guy and not at him. That's refreshing. He's a great defender of the small-town life, a guy who is more substantial than we first are led to believe and a guy you can't help but appreciate by film's end.
Emily Landham is Mara, the small-town girl who's gone away to college and is merely back for the summer. Wally takes a shine to her, but it mostly feels like more spark than flame. Landham infuses the film with a beating heart, her girl-next-door looks and persona making Wally's adoration feel completely understandable. Landham's a gem here, perhaps the film's underlying strength, and she does a nice job of serving as the bridge that makes everything else connect.
It's not surprising that Down and Yonder has picked up some fest prizes along its journey including at the Northeast Film Festival (Best Screenplay), Queen City Film Festival (Audience Award), and Sunny Side Up Film Festival (Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography - Feature, and Best Supporting Actor for James). Down and Yonder is the kind of film you expect to see at your local indie film festival and it's the kind of film that leaves you talking after you've seen it.
It's also the kind of film that will leave me watching the IMDB pages for Flippo, Schulz, James, and Landham.
Benson Greene's lensing for the film is particularly strong, capturing the beauty of small-town life and the tensions of internal and external conflict. Richard Malstrom's original music for the film leans into the film's emotional core, though I may have wished for a tad more Southern twang to it. As I was researching the film, I couldn't help but notice over the course of the film's lengthy festival run that Flippo had clearly tweaked and adjusted, altered and edited the film into something a little tighter and more energized. That was a great choice and the film is way better off for it.
For more information on Down and Yonder, visit the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits. Watch for it at a fest near you or when it shows up available to stream. It's worth your time and deserves an audience.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic