From the opening notes of Eric Shimelonis's sparse yet twinkling original score for Amber McGinnis' award-winning International Falls, it's apparent that we are about to be transported into a different sort of world.
Shimelonis's score touched me immediately, first a light chuckle and then an emotion unexpectedly deep and jarring. These are feelings I would experience often throughout International Falls, a film that somehow weaves together a tapestry emotionally honest, at times immensely dark, and yet just as often rather laugh-out-loud funny. Dee (Rachael Harris) is a small-town wife married to the philandering Gary (Matthew Glave, simultaneously being the responsible parent and a full-time hotel desk clerk while not so secretly harboring dreams of being a stand up comic. Tim (Rob Huebel) is a touring comic with a career on the downward spiral and a marriage even further down the spiral. He is a talented comic, but a comic increasily immersed in the darkness that has become his life.
Both Dee and Tim are at a breaking point, though until they meet they're not completely aware of it. In some ways, you could say that each of them serves as a mirror for the other, their life turmoil different yet essentially similar. They've both needed to make difficult choices, but sometimes there's safety in being stuck until being stuck isn't safe anymore.
Once they meet each other, being stuck isn't really safe anymore.
I should confess that I fell in love with International Falls rather quickly, first with Rachael Harris's achingly vulnerable physical presence somewhat masked by a delightful almost to the point of cartoonish Minnesota accent that makes you want to hug her and watch her do stand-up. Then, I grew rather fond of Tim, a broken soul whose lost the will to hide his brokenness. It's inevitable that Dee and Tim will click, as friends and as comics and, yes, with a bit of a romantic spark between them. Fortunately, Thomas Ward's screenplay doesn't go the easy route and Amber McGinnis is an intuitive filmmaker with enough awareness that this story's got an awful lot more going for it than to lazily relax into cliche's.
Instead, International Falls is really a character-driven film, each character growing into a truer version of themselves than they've ever had the courage to be before. It just so happens that this person they meet is the catalyst, if you will, that will provide that spark.
We all need that spark. Some of us get it earlier than others.
International Falls picked up a slew of awards on its festival journey including five Best Film awards including prizes at Ashland Independent Film Festival, Fargo Film Festival (Honorable Mention), Seattle International Film Festival, and others. McGinnis picked up a well deserved Best Actress prize at Jefferson State Flixx Fest and was worthy of much more.
Yet, International Falls is a difficult film to peg. In the course of its just over 90-minute running time, International Falls will make you laugh and make you cry. It will make you think. It will make you shift. It will make you squirm. It's the kind of film that immerses you in its world, a world made even better because you can't help but love these two broken people whom you hope find a way out of their brokenness.
Rachael Harris is an absolute gem here, endearing from her opening scene and always caught somewhere between a sense of obligation that she places on herself and the world that seems just beyond her reach. Harris's entire being feels worn yet slowly emerging and her physical transformation seemingly lights up the snowy Minnesota landscape.
Huebel, a familiar comic performer, goes deeper than we're used to from him yet does so believably and with remarkable chemistry with Harris. He's less revealing of his inner workings, yet if you watch his face it transforms over the course of the film. With routines written by Ward, himself a former touring comic, Tim looks like and sounds like a comic who just really can't find the funny all that much anymore yet there's still something there that makes him something of a perfect mentor for Dee. It's a nuanced role and Huebel nails it.
Matthew Glave does nice work as Dee's almost frighteningly stereotypical husband Gary, while a Kevin Nealon appearance is simply always a welcome addition to any film and especially a film such as this one.
Andrew Aiello's lensing beautifully captures the Minnesota landscape and the sense of disconnect that exists in both Tim and Dee's lives, while he's just as comfortable placing that lens uncomfortably on their fractured intimacy between themselves and others.
Originally scheduled for a limited theatrical release along with its VOD distribution, the disconnecting COVID-19 landscape tossed those plans to the wind but you can, fortunately, still see the film for yourself and that's definitely something you should do. This is a weird time in the life of this country as we isolate, stay six-feet-apart, and try to figure out what to do with ourselves. When it comes down to it, that's pretty much the same journey going on for Dee and Tim and it's a dark, vulnerable, funny, and incredibly engaging story to watch unfold.
International Falls is available via most of your usual streaming outlets including Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube, and Redbox. With intelligence and insight and more than a little dark humor, Amber McGinnis has directed a winner.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic