World Premiere and U.S. Indie selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival
Nine miles from downtown and adorned with beaches nestled next to Lake Michigan, the vibrant Rogers Park neighborhood is northernmost edge of Chicago’s city limits. Constantly bucking stereotypes made about the perceived flaws of the Second City, the progressive and affluent enclave statistically contains the highest level of racial diversity in Chicago. It is as great a place as any in the urban metropolis to tell a blended story of the hardened hearts within hard-working people. A blanketing sunrise over the freshwater surf of that aforementioned Great Lakes welcomes viewers to Rogers Park.
The new independent film from previous Cannes and Independent Spirit Award nominee Kyle Henry borrows the community’s name and chronicles four fictional members of its middle class bourgeoisie. Rogers Park begins a run of four dates at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting on February 23rd. The film lays out an unspoken and tenuous history of blame between Grace (Sara Sevigny of Cold War and TV’s Empire) and her brother Chris (A Ghost Story supporting player Jonny Mars). She is an endeared early childhood daycare center teacher and he is a librarian and struggling author. We see their sensibilities first collide when Chris’s petulant and drunken toast of his sister embarrasses her at a large birthday dinner party.
Caught in the middle of this sibling angst are their respective significant others. Grace is married to a laboring realtor named Zeke (veteran local actor Antoine McKay) who hides the dire financial troubles caused by his losing investments from his wife. Marred by his own creative stagnation and pushing for so-called space to reignite his writing, Chris and his instability seem to be on their last threads to keep Gina (the top-billed Christine Horn of American Crime Story and Legion), a local political work for the 49th Ward, in the picture. It is mostly through her point of view that Rogers Park surveys and examines the landscape of this familial strife. Outbursts and resentment can only be contained so much before they boil over worse than when they were first introduced.
Writer Carlos Trevino (Fourplay) penned ponderous interludes between clashes that flesh out domestic trouble and flirt with fleeting tranquility. In different hands, this would be “how could you” soap opera melodrama or non-impactful fodder for some family comedy of cliched Chicago or urban hipster stereotypes. Instead Trevino’s words and Henry’s direction give the four terrific leads excellent material to chew on and latitude to add all the ferocious power necessary to sell the film’s difficult emotions. The profane and palpable anguish dialed up by Sara Sevigny and Jonny Mars is remarkable. Not to be outdone, Horn and McKay get their scoring rebuttals to create more than mere head-shaking of agreement or disagreement. They have their own Molotov cocktails of incendiary remarks lit and ready.
All the while, the sights and sounds of the Rogers Park neighborhood nearly create a fifth character at the film’s forefront. Shot by documentary specialist Drew Xanthopoulos, scored by Hellion’s Curtis Heath, and edited into occasional montages by first-time feature editor John Fecile, the setting has as much natural and lived-in chemistry and wrought qualities as the characters. The challenge is when the overwrought takes over. While the acting is inarguably impressive, not all of the chatty circles of mundane happenings and domestic dilemmas along the way maintain a strong interest level while knowing and waiting for the tea kettle of rancorous anger to whistle and burst.
LESSON #1: FOODS WITH MARIJUANA ON THE INGREDIENT LIST ARE RARELY A GOOD IDEA — Fragile souls with fragile psyches and pent-up issues probably shouldn’t be diving into the recreational drugs expecting ease. Instead, lowered inhibitions are going to bring out untamed and brutal honesty. That threshold and the carelessness that follows only cause trouble. Skip the pot cupcakes and get a nice cheesecake to share.
LESSON #2: THE LEVEL OF OPENNESS TOLERATED IN A RELATIONSHIP — Spouses are rarely in lockstep on every want or desire in their relationship. Both partners are combining and compromising different tolerance levels for any given virtue. Someone is the questioner. Someone is the sacrificer. Someone is the complacent one. Someone is the sanctimonious one. How all that meshes in any given relationship is telling and, taking it one layer higher, will be either be accepted or unaccepted by peers and fellow couples as well.
LESSON #2: IMPOSSIBLY CHOOSING SIDES IN A FAMILY ARGUMENT — When misunderstandings boil over, to what place do family members throw their helpful flotation of moral support. Who comes first, blood family or spousal family? Resentment is the root of the arguments in Rogers Park. Chris and Grace have each built a skyscraper from that root of repressed and unresolved family difficulties. Gina and Zeke need to decide where and how to help and how to avoid judgments for or against that could make matters worse instead of better.