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TCFF2023: Like Its Protagonist, Downtown Owl Is a Hot Mess

Photo: Sony Pictures.

Downtown Owl closed out the 2023 Twin Cities Film Festival with not one but two screenings, the second of them added after the first sold out. I’m not sure if its quirky tale of a schoolteacher’s first year in a tiny North Dakota town has truly universal appeal, but TCFF audiences seemed eager to see former Fargo Forum music columnist Chuck Klosterman’s first novel finally adapted to cinema.

I know I was.

And I was certainly predisposed to love this film. It’s an indie piece focused on a female protagonist (co-writer and co-producer Lily Rabe‘s Julia), set close to where I grew up in an era where I lived there (fictional “Owl” is just down I-94 from my hometown of Valley City, which got not one but two shoutouts). The 2008 source novel is funny and endearing, something of a postmodern Winesburg, Ohio for the Reagan era. The cast features Hollywood names from young (Jack Dylan Grazer of the Shazam films) to old (Ed Harris) and in between (Henry Golding, Vanessa Hudgens) alongside some top-flight Minnesota-based talent (Arden Michalec, Emma Halleen). And it’s set to a soundtrack of thumping Attractions-era Elvis Costello.

And yet…

Like its protagonist, Downtown Owl is a hot mess.

Rabe’s Julia is new to little Owl, having just moved there from Milwaukee (the “big city”) to take a job teaching English to the high schoolers there. She’s married to a PhD candidate who’s staying behind to dissertate while she earns a living and plans their future. Owl is the kind of place where sports rule, whether the teams are any good or not, and the football coach and English “department” head (of a department of two) can and does knock up one of his students. Julia’s method of embracing her new town is to drink every night at its local watering hole with new bestie Naomi (Hudgens) and pine for hunky local bison farmer (Golding), whose attention she just can’t seem to keep, if not for lack of trying.

Lily Rabe as Julia, sitting in an office in Downtown Owl.
Lily Rabe as Julia in Downtown Owl. Photo: Sony Pictures.

Klosterman’s novel was equally focused on two other co-protagonists who both feature in the film, if here to a significantly lesser extent. Harris plays Horace, an aging townie football fan caring for his invalid wife and with whom Julia strikes up an unlikely if affecting friendship. August Blanco Rosenstein plays sensitive quarterback Mitch Hrlicka, a sweet young man with a crush on knocked-up Tina McAndrew (Michalec). Both characters take a back seat here to Rabe’s Julia, not, as George and Jerry used to say, that there’s anything wrong with that. Rabe is co-producer with her partner and screenwriter Hamish Linklater and typically something has to be excised or truncated n the process of paring down a 300-page novel to a 90-minute script. There’s a dearth of films about young women like her Julia anyway, and Rabe’s performance is excellent.

Channeling at times a young Laura Dern, Rabe powers through the role with gusto. Focusing on her character at the expense of others, the film provides her Julia a character arc Klosterman’s novel, which leaves her fate ambiguous, doesn’t complete. She’s a bit shy at first in her new surroundings but learns to embrace her new surroundings with a lusty, drunken gusto that feels entirely appropriate to the disorienting place that is Owl, North Dakota in the early 1980s.

The supporting cast is pretty good too. Rosenstein and Harris make an impression despite their limited screentime; so does Golding. (At least this film knows what to do with the national treasure that is Ed Harris; not all do.) The Minnesota talent—the film was shot mostly in and around St. Paul—is excellent, especially Michalec. Hudgens overplays her part to the point where even her biggest fans will wince when her shrill, unfunny character appears onscreen. She seems like she wandered off the set of a poor remake of West Side Story.

Despite the mostly game cast, a tonal inconsistency is Downtown Owl’s downfall. It really wants to be funny, but isn’t; it aims to be sincere, but isn’t. It’s neither an ensemble piece nor a character study. It’s neither realistic nor melodramatic. To Klosterman’s novel, it’s mostly faithful, but manages not to capture much of its unpretentious dark comedy. Production notes describe the film as a “sparkle dark” comedy set in “Minnesota’s century,” whatever that means; I’ll confess, the film is difficult to describe.

Like Julia with a whole can of Aqua-Net, fishnet stockings, a push-up bra, and gobs of makeup in a desperately cringey attempt to woo a handsome bison rancher, Downtown Owl tries too damn hard to charm and fails. There’s voice-over narration and an animated title sequence. When when the filmmakers can’t quite trust the audience to understand the unspoken nuance of dialogue they turn to re-enacting, with nondiegetic text onscreen, how we should interpret Jia’s halting conversation with Golding’s Vance. There is not, I am happy to report, a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number, but by the film’s end, I would not have been shocked to see the film’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach include one.

Then, when the primary characters are stuck in separate cars in a blinding blizzard with no one to talk to, they talk to the camera instead. It seems like a conceit born more of surrender than intention, like the filmmakers just couldn’t come up with a way to convey information without breaking the fourth wall. I get that Downtown Owl is aiming for a cheeky irreverence, but it feels instead like such a pastiche of moods, tones, styles, genres, and narratives that it never quite knows what it’s doing. Klosterman’s novel was ambiguous about Julia’s fate in ways this film doesn’t dare be, but by the time the end credits roll, it’s hard to care as much about her or her story as much as about finding your way to the exit.


Postscript: Hollywood directors who film scenes with actors walking about in what is supposed to be a freezing North Dakota blizzard without a hat or mittens should be consigned to try it themselves.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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