One of several remarkable things about C.O.G., the first movie officially based on an essay by humorist David Sedaris, is the way it captures the spirit of the author’s writing—his self-deprecating humor, his gift for details of character and environment—without cannibalizing his prose. A lesser filmmaker might have converted Sedaris’ written words into spoken narration, essentially re-creating the experience of reading his work, but not writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. He instead trusts the integrity of the yarn, maybe the toughest and most wounding of the autobiographical entries in the 1997 collection Naked.
It helps that Alvarez found an actor capable of conveying, with just a well-timed glance, a breadth of private emotions. Jonathan Groff (Glee) plays the twentysomething David, fresh out of the Ivy League and on a pilgrimage to Oregon, where he’ll “get his hands dirty” as an apple picker. The film’s hilarious opening montage, in which the character copes with various weirdos and over-sharers on an endless cross-country bus ride, promises a sharp comedy of discomfort. Yet C.O.G. turns out to be a much richer, more troubling work—a coming-of-age memoir built on a foundation of difficult life lessons, and a tale of meaning discovered and then lost. Groff’s hero is a figure worthy of ridicule and sympathy, a man lacking in self-awareness (and humility) but also young enough to deserve better than what the world delivers upon him during this ill-fated adventure. Enlightenment is what he goes searching for and enlightenment is what he receives, though it may take years for him to process the experience in anything but negative terms.
Displaying refreshing faith in the audience’s intelligence, Alvarez resists spelling out his protagonist’s backstory. It’s implied and not outright stated, for example, that Groff left home after coming out to his parents, who reacted poorly to the news. (His sexuality, too, becomes clear organically, not through some declaration or revelation.) In Naked, Sedaris created context chronologically, as each story built off the last to construct a vision of the writer’s formative years. This version of C.O.G. exists outside of the author’s history; it’s a self-contained saga of painful self-discovery. To compensate, Alvarez floods the margins of the film with quickly but vividly sketched locals: Dean Stockwell as a grizzled farmer, Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) as an unfriendly co-worker, Casey Wilson as a devout mother. Best known for imitating Hemingway in Midnight In Paris, Corey Stoll plays a strapping townie who takes a shining to Groff. In one of the film’s plainest and most productive departures from its source material, the attraction is mutual—until it quite suddenly isn’t. (There’s both humor and horror in the way that plot strand unfurls.)
Of all the supporting characters orbiting the movie’s Sedaris surrogate, none is more crucial than the born-again veteran who takes him under his wing. (It’s here that the title, an acronym for Child of God, becomes important.) Denis O’Hare plays the vet in a terrifically complex rendering of questionable altruism. Pride, as it turns out, is Groff’s greatest obstacle; it keeps him from making amends with his mother, from relating to his new neighbors, and from leaping headlong into the faith that seems to sustain his new mentor. But when he lets go of that pride, is his sacrifice rewarded? There are some who have complained that C.O.G. ends too abruptly, but it has the bracing, devastating punctuation of a fine short story. Although this film begins on a bus instead of ending on one, there’s a potent whiff of The Graduate in its final gaze into the future—a road much more lonely when traveled solo.