Joseph Harris, played to intoxicating perfection by Jeff Daniels, is a New York-based Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who hasn't produced a readable script in 20 years much to the chagrine of his agent, Helen (Erika Slezak). So, when he gets a contract to produce his supposedly ready new play for small local theatre in Lima, Michigan Helen isn't about to let him off the hook.
A small indie production from Daniels' own Michigan-based production company Grand River Productions, Guest Artist is screening as a narrative feature finalist in competition at the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis. The film has already picked up a slew of fest awards in mostly smaller indie fests including Beloit International Film Festival (Best Feature Film), Dumbo Film Festival (Best Narrative Feature), Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival (Best Actor for Daniels, Best Independent Film), IndieFEST Film Awards (Award of Excellence, Feature Film), Myrtle Beach International Film Festival (Best Actor for Daniels, Best Director for Timothy Busfield, and Overall Winner), New York City Independent Film Festival (Best Actor, Best Director, Best Feature Film), Port Townsend Film Festival (Jury Special Commendation - Best Actor, Thomas Macias), Sacramento International Film Festival (Outstanding Feature Film), and SENE Film, Music, and Art Festival (Best Feature Film, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay for Daniels).
In Guest Artist, Daniels' gay New York playwright shows up for his Christmas season obligation in snowy Lima, Ohio with more than a little help from a bottle of gin and a growing sense of desperation. However, when the cynical New Yorker meets up with Kenneth Waters (Thomas Macias), an aspiring playwright who has forsaken the family business in wing nuts for his aspirations in local theatre, introductions don't exactly go smoothly and he's no sooner arrived than he's making plans to return to New York on the next train out. Scrambling to keep his lifelong idol in town and preserve his place in his local theatre, Kenneth has to do whatever it takes to face his hero and explore the uncomfortable and not always compatible relationship between the dreams of youth and the wisdom of age and impact of life experiences.
It's more than a little funny to see Daniels railing on smalltown Michigan knowing that the actor himself resides in Chelsea, Michigan where the film was shot. The film, penned by Daniels, is inspired by a stageplay, also penned by Daniels, inspired by a story from Daniels' youth years in local theatre where a similar situation unfolded and a respected playwright showed up as agreed upon but hadn't produced the also agreed upon play.
There's no question that Guest Artist looks and feels like a stage production; director Timothy Busfield has definitely maintained the story's intimate vibe and warmth meets vulnerability. The story is also set during the Christmas season complete with accompanying Christmas music that gives the film an even richer sense that we're looking for some sort of Christmas miracle here amidst everything that unfolds.
While much of what unfolds in Guest Artist is fairly predictable, rest assured that Daniels has a few detours up his sleeve and the strong chemistry between Daniels and Michigan-based actor Thomas Macias keeps everything engaging and involving. Daniels is a master with this type of character, in many ways a rather unlikable chap with an underlying layer of guardedness that lets you know there's more to Joseph Harris than initially meets the eye. Daniels keeps us hooked long enough for everything to unfold in the relatively slight, breezy 75-minute production. Thomas Macias is a Hawaiian born actor who grew up in New York and now works as the stage manager at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Guest Artist is his first major role but there are only fleeting moments that's a bit obvious, a significant accomplishment working opposite an actor like the two-time Emmy Award-winning and four time Golden Globe nominated Daniels.
Guest Artist is the kind of indie gem that the Heartland International Film Festival is so good at discovering and bringing to life and, indeed, Guest Artist is a small, indie production that deserves its fest success and deserves to find a wider audience. Daniels gives a tremendous performance here, both achingly wounded in moments and filled with artistic bravado in others. The film's final moments are genuinely moving, Daniels' Joseph Harris perhaps peeling a layer or two off the wounded facade that has kept both his humanity and his artistry boxed in for far too many years. Daniels slowly builds these closing moments, his body language and facial expressions saying as much, if not more, than the words that he speaks.
Music by Ben Daniels, Daniels' real life son, is absolutely sublime while the lensing from Wilson Coates Busfield, director Timothy Busfield's son, manages to infuse the film with a holiday warmth and a believable tension.
For more information on Guest Artist, visit the film's official IMDB page linked to in the credits. For more information on its screenings at Heartland International Film Festival, visit the Heartland Film website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic