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The Independent Critic

T.J. Thyne, Paula Rhodes, Chris Stone, Dylan Sprayberry, Elle Labadie
Kurt Kuenne
82 Mins.
Gather Films (Theatrical on Demand)
DVD features both the popular black & white version of the film, the color version and 50 minutes of new bonus features!

 "Shuffle" Review 
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The closing night film for the 2011 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis brought back a Heartland audience fave, writer/director Kurt Kuenne, whose short film Validation could very well be considered the Rupert Boneham of the Heartland Film Festival ... it won once, but it remains a favorite year after year after year.

Shortly after Validation's successful Heartland appearance, Kuenne directed the magnificent documentary Dear Zachary, a deeply personal documentary that Kuenne made following the murder of one of his best friends. Shuffle, Kuenne's latest film and his first full-length narrative feature, is dedicated to Zachary, a significance that won't really be driven home until after you've seen the incredibly unique and inspired film.

Shuffle reunites Kuenne with Validation leading man T.J. Thyne, whose star has continued to rise since he landed a featured  role on television's Bones as Dr. Jack Hodgins. While it's not uncommon for this critic to disagree with Heartland's festival winners, Validation remains one of The Independent Critic's few 4-star rated short films.

In this film, Thyne plays Lovell Milo, a man who suddenly begins to experience his life out of sequence and finds himself leaping back and forth between the ages of 8 to 92. Kuenne, who joined Thyne at Heartland's closing night event, called the film a blend of Twilight Zone and It's a Wonderful Life and the result is, indeed, a wonderful film.

Kuenne is writer, director, cinematographer, producer, editor and composer for the modestly budgeted Shuffle, a film for which Kuenne recruited the aid of his buddies in the Theatre Junkies Players to work both off and on the screen. To his credit, Kuenne keeps the audience guessing until the very end as to exactly what's going on here and how it's all going to end up and neither secret is about to be given away here. Do we have ourselves another Memento? Another It's a Wonderful Life? Another A Christmas Carol?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

plays out as equal parts psychological drama, family drama, romance, comedy, inspirational drama and, just for good measure, a little bit of a crime thriller. It would seem that our dear Lovell Milo is experiencing some sort of whacked out sleeping disorder, a disorder that appears to have rather devastating and time-altering consequences. After shuffling from one decade to the next for awhile, Milo finally receives more than one clue that he ought to be paying close attention to what's going on. As the stories of his life unfolds, Milo begins to come face-to-face with truths about his mother (Meeghan Holaway, The Bold and the Beautiful) and his father (Chris Stone), a respected physician masking of few of his own secrets. Even more troubling, Milo can't seem to put together the pieces of his memory surrounding the beautiful Grace (Elle Labadie as a child, Paula Rhodes as an adult).

Kuenne made the decision to release Shuffle in black-and-white, a practically unheard of decision for any filmmaker aspiring to anything resembling a theatrical release. Kuenne, however, has always proven himself to be more devoted to artistic integrity than box-office friendliness and with Shuffle it would seem that it's greatest success is likely to exist on the film festival circuit and, perhaps, in a limited arthouse run where discerning audiences will be more likely to give something this experimental a chance.

T.J. Thyne is spot-on perfect as the multi-layered and emotionally complex Lovell Milo, exuding both a delightful innocence and a weary, weathered emotional burn-out. If Thyne leaps too far to either side of the spectrum, he risks giving away his character's secrets. Somehow, he manages to play just the right balance that makes you wonder if Milo is insane, demented, grieving, dreaming or all of the above. Thyne could be quite convincing as a young man going quietly mad, yet he's equally convincing in his breathtakingly beautiful scenes with Grace.

Speaking of Grace, Paula Rhodes is simply extraordinary as the angelic young woman who when she pledges her lifetime love and devotion you absolutely believe it. Rhodes embodies a young woman who is both feisty enough to confront judgmental parents yet devoted enough to know when to back off.

One cannot mention the roles of Milo and Grace without acknowledging the exceptional performances of Dylan Sprayberry and Elle Labadie, who portray the two as children. There's a seamless, perfectly woven together connection between Milo and Grace as adults and children and much of this credit must go to Sprayberry and Labadie for their insightful and inspired performances.

Chris Stone turns in a solid performance as Dr. Milo, a man whose masks serve as a wall between he and his family. The early scenes involving Dr. Milo are downright unnerving, a fact that makes his transformation over the course of the film that much more marvelous to behold. Meeghan Holaway and Tamara Taylor shine in supporting roles.

Kuenne lenses the film beautifully, his images matching perfectly with his at times elegant and at times haunting original composition. Paul Peres's production design complements everything quite nicely, while Sica Schmitz's costuming also leaves a lasting impression and looks especially beautiful in black-and-white.

Shuffle had its world premiere at the Hollywood Film Festival on October 21st, with Kuenne flying in for the film's next evening appearance in Indianapolis to close out the Heartland Film Festival. While at first glance it would seem that Shuffle is a new direction for Kuenne, the simple truth is that it continues Kuenne's established history of creating thought provoking and emotionally satisfying motion pictures.

It seems unlikely that Shuffle will end up in a multiplex near you any time soon, a sad fact indicative of Hollywood's complete lack of artistic integrity, but if there's any justice in the world the film will have a long life on the festival and indie circuit and is more than worthy of at least a couple Independent Spirit Award nominations.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic