Passenger Side Takes An Eccentric Ride Around LA

This post is a rerun, originally published on Blogcritics in July 2009. I saw the movie and interviewed the brothers last year at the LA Film Festival. Now, it’s being released in theatres in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and you must see it – great film, great soundtrack.

Passenger Side Takes An Eccentric Ride Around LA

It’s fitting that Passenger Side, a film about a day-long road trip around Los Angeles and environs, had its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It’s also fitting that I saw it two hours after arriving in Los Angeles after being the passenger on a week-long road trip. But the LA of Passenger Side is not the LA of a tourist, unless that tourist were particularly fond of transsexual prostitutes, middle-of-nowhere gas stations, and low-rent porn shoots.

Beyond the seemingly disjointed scenes of LA’s underbelly and a couple of plot twists I can’t reveal, there is little plot to share. Former addict Tobey (Joel Bissonnette) calls on writer brother Michael (Adam Scott of Party Down) to drive him around Los Angeles supposedly for a series of job interviews, encountering a series of oddball characters along the way.

“The film has a very limited narrative,” writer/director Matthew Bissonnette agreed. “A guy shows up, says he’s doing one thing, it turns out he’s doing another thing, which turns out to be a third thing. It’s a 1-2-3 plot, so it’s much more about the relationship between the actors.”

That third thing made me wish theatres had rewind buttons, since it forces the audience to re-examine events, but the heart of the film is the poignant and unexpected revelations of character rather than plot. Michael is too much an observer of life, not enough a participant. Tobey, whose past is the subject of the road trip, has perhaps participated a little too much. The costs of their life choices, however, are not quite as predictable as the brothers or the audience might think.

The Bissonnette family is well-represented in Passenger Side – Montreal-bred Matt and Joel are brothers, and Matt’s dog even has a role in the film. Canadian-born, LA-based brothers making a film about Canadian-born, LA-based brothers invites the most obvious of questions: are the characters modeled on the men?

In one scene, Tobey expresses his dismay at the fact that Michael’s failed novel paints the protagonist’s brother as a screw-up. Joel denies he had the same reaction to the script. “They’re both characters which are perhaps hybrids of both of us and neither of us. And then once we started shooting, there was a whole lot of Adam Scott.”

“It was the easiest film I’ve ever made in part because the narrative is so simple, but also because the actors were both so strong,” asserted Matt, who was named one of 10 young American moviemakers to watch by The Independent (yes, they know he’s Canadian: they designate him “almost American”).

Since both characters are enormously likable, and their barb-laden relationship unfolds effortlessly, it’s easy for the audience to go along for a ride where nothing much seems to happen. When Michael describes his next, unfinished novel – one that bears some resemblance to the non-plot of the movie at that point – Tobey comments that it sounds boring.

“That’s a little Brechtian type of thing, if you want to get fancy about it,” Matt said. “In film school that’s what they’d say: it’s a Bertolt Brecht moment. It’s a difficult thing in a film that doesn’t have a lot of story, to sense when the audience might be zoning out on you. I hope that the way this film works is that just as we’re reaching that part, you have the end of the film, which pulls it all together.”

“I fell in love with the movie again watching it the other night,” actor brother Joel admitted. “It’s hard to define: it’s a road movie, it’s a movie about two brothers, in a sense it’s a love story.”

“I liked the confined space. It set the tone – a very intimate conversational tone. We’re not overtly talking about anything really deep, but there’s a very definite close, comfortable relationship between the brothers. You get the impression these are guys who have spent a lot of time together, and that’s aided and abetted by the space itself, which is intimate.”

“The difficult thing was I never got to drive,” he joked, explaining that his acting options were limited. “There was a lot of putting on of the seat belt.”

“The visual aesthetic was very much defined by the confined narrative. I’m always interested in combining disparate elements,” Matt explained, sounding very much like the indie filmmaker he is. “So if you have an intimate, talky film, you want to open it up visually to the extent you can and turn the viewer outward. It was an interesting thing, when to be on the actors and when to pull back.”

He also talked about balancing the film’s broad laughs with more nuanced humour, and populating the soundtrack with both more and less familiar tunes (including, naturally, Wilco’s “Passenger Side”).

“I think balance and juxtaposition are how cinema works. You have three basic elements you’re juggling – sound, story and picture – and you want to make them not all the same, because that’s dull.”

Theatrical distribution will partly depend on the reception to its festival appearances, but even if Passenger Side doesn’t end up in a theatre near you, it will eventually be available on DVD and, at least in Canada, television. The Movie Network and Movie Central will broadcast it, as they have Bissonnette’s two previous films, Looking for Leonard and Who Loves the Sun. “They pre-licenced this one, which they don’t usually do with smaller films,” the writer/director explained. “But they liked it and they were completely instrumental in getting the movie made.”

As Canadian as the funding is – Telefilm is also involved – Passenger Side is a fascinating glimpse of Los Angeles as much as it is an enjoyably voyeuristic look into these two characters’ lives.

“I don’t know if there’s a Canadian sensibility because I don’t know what that is,” Matt laughed in answer to my obligatory Cancon question. “It has a sensibility that Joel and I are familiar with. Because the people who made it are Canadian there’s something there, but I wouldn’t know what that something is.”

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