Written and Directed by
Alexandra Shepherd, Ryan Matthew Ziegler, Adam Kander, Bryan Bosque, Kerry McGlynn, Kristen Ann Wenke, Chad Manuel and Donna Ray
Natalie (Alexandra Shepherd) has a secret. Engaged to Jacob (Ryan Matthew Ziegler), Natalie has slept with Nick (Adam Kander). Consumed by guilt, Natalie must decide for herself if this was simply a momentary indiscretion or something more. Which man does she love? As they gather with friends for Jacob's 30th birthday party, there will be more than one "surprise" revealed.
One of the key challenges facing writer/director Christopher Schrader's The Surprise Party is that the film starts off very strongly supporting the notion that Natalie's indiscretion with Nick is "wrong," an implication given by the film's darker lighting during this scene and Shepherd's remorseful, guilt-ridden body language and facial expression. Yet, from the moment that Jacob arrives on screen he acts, looks and feels completely and utterly wrong for Natalie and, even more dramatically, there's an underlying tension between the two that never gives any credibility to the idea that these two even care about each other let alone are actually engaged. Heck, if I were coming home to Jacob I'd likely find myself cheating.
This key conflict of character development, at least for this critic, dominates The Surprise Party to such a degree that it's difficult to be patient with and understand the tense build-up to what will obviously be a dramatic and really gathering of friends. It doesn't help matters, in this case, that Ryan Matthew Ziegler carries a strong vocal presence that dominates the quieter, more sensitive presence of Alexandra Shepherd throughout much of the film and at times exudes a sort of perpetrator vs. victim aura that makes the party itself even more uncomfortable.
The fact that I had such a strong reaction to The Surprise Party does, however, say something about the power and impact of Schrader's script, an inventive and emotionally intriguing script that goes a direction one doesn't quite expect and, despite initial concerns manages to build in appeal as the film winds towards its climax.
The Surprise Party features particularly strong performances from Adam Kander as Nick, embodying him with both sensitivity and an undeniable edginess that makes for quite the layered character throughout the course of the film's nearly 43-minute run time. Additionally, the coupling of Bryan Bosque and Kristen Ann Wenke works wonders in the film with both performers giving relaxed, authentic performances that build nicely with the material.
Where The Surprise Party is particularly strong is in the area of tech, with stellar camera work and an original score that complements the film quite nicely and builds dramatically as Schrader changes directions and takes these characters down an entirely different and, indeed, surprising path.
For more information on The Surprise Party, visit the film's website above or, even better, watch the film for yourself!