Had I not served on the jury for the 2016 Heartland Film Festival, it may have been tempting to set aside Jeff Barry's Occupy, Texas, a film that exists somewhere within the universe of "been there, seen that" films about the social misfit who is suddenly called upon to become a responsible adult when tragedy strikes. Let's face it, it's been done more times than we can count in films ranging from Sandler's Billy Madison to The Ultimate Gift films to quite a few more.
I'd been there. I'd seen it. I'd have moved on.
However, I was on the jury for the 2016 Heartland Film Festival and Occupy, Texas is a finalist amongst the narrative feature films. So, watching Occupy, Texas was an obligation.
Sometimes, it's good to be wrong.
At times quirky and at times understatedly heartfelt, Occupy, Texas is a little gem of a film centered around Beau Baker (Gene Gallerano, who also penned the film), a washed out Occupy Wall Street protestor who wakes up one morning on the streets of New York City to the news that his parents have died. Summoned back to his Texas home, Beau learns that his parents have made him executor of his estate and, more alarmingly, guardian for his two teenage sisters, Claire (Lorelei Linklater) and Arden (Catherine Elvir) much to the dismay of his aunt (Peri Gilpin, television's Frasier).
The greatest downfall for Occupy, Texas is its complete and utter predictability. While Gallerano infuses the story with interesting characters and authentic dialogue, the simple fact is that there's really never a moment where you don't know exactly where the film is going. The mere fact that the film is now screening at Heartland affirms the film's status as an inevitably redemptive story about belonging, responsibility and overcoming one's challenges.
Along the way, however, Occupy, Texas hooks you in courtesy of Barry's comfortable and assured direction and an ensemble cast that seems to understand even the finer nuances of the film.
Gallerano tackles a role practically tailor made for a Baldwin brother, a directionless slacker whose incredulousness at being appointed in charge of anything fuels that always awkward mid-point of these types of films where people who don't belong together are forced to get to know one another. Beau makes just about every mistake a newbie "parent" can make, though Gallerano's also written him in such a way that the film never condescends or judges these mistakes. He's not a bad guy - he's just not the obvious choice for this kind of role. Similarly, Peri Gilpin is a true gem as his equally incredulous but immensely caring aunt. While most films create an overly intense and unnecessary conflict here, Barry and Gallerano wisely build a more layered and believable relationship and Gilpin pulls it off beautifully.
Lorelei Linklater proved her acting chops in father Richard Linklater's Boyhood, though she shines just as brightly here outside that familial connection. Linklater's Claire is the angry and rebellious one, but Linklater avoids caricature and infuses Claire with just enough vulnerability that you're drawn into her anger and fear and hopes. Newcomer Catherine Elvir is a major find here as Arden, who gravitates toward Beau's free spirited ways in much the way a lifelong introvert is compelled toward an extroverted companion or loved one. Elvir's performance is the film's most emotionally resonant turn, Elvir possessing a transparency and openness that brings Arden to life in ways that elevate Occupy,Texas above many similar films.
Occupy, Texas is a little bit quirky, but not overly so. The laughs are borne out of authentic situations rather than comedy set-ups, while these characters begin to feel like the familial bonds could very well be real over the course of the film's 93-minute running time. With director Jeff Barry scheduled to be in attendance at the festival, Occupy, Texas should prove to be one of the fest's more popular entries and will hopefully snag a deserved indie distribution deal before the end of its festival run.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic