Next time you’re tempted to complain that the Sundance Film Festival has become a wasteland of cookie-cutter romantic comedies starring slumming TV actors, and tortured dramas about gay cowboys eating pudding, consider this: It could be worse. There was a time when “American independent film” meant indifferently shot, life-sappingly earnest melodrama, invariably with some sort of dishwater-mild social uplift.
Director Victor Nunez represents a throwback to those drab old days. Like his better-known Ulee’s Gold and Ruby In Paradise, his latest movie, Spoken Word, is an up-the-middle character study, this time about a spoken-word poet (the Goal! trilogy’s Kuno Becker) called from San Francisco to Santa Fe to care for his dying father (Rubén Blades). He confronts deep-seated issues with his father as well as the demons that drove him from the city in the first place, as well as losing and regaining his artistic inspiration—but then you knew all that, didn’t you?
Nunez manages a few subtle details, like a shot of Becker and his slumbering girlfriend (Persia White) showing matching star-shaped scars on their shoulder blades, neatly characterizing their relationship without a single line of dialogue. But mostly, he just presses doggedly ahead, moving from plot point to plot point without coming up with much of anything worth looking at.
As Becker’s drinking and drug-taking grow out of control, he falls under the influence of bar owner Miguel Sandoval, whose club is home to a variety of nonspecific illegalities. Sandoval goes light on the villainy—he’s a tempter, not a coercer—but his bad intentions are never in doubt. He nearly ruined Blades’ life when they were kids together, and now he’s after Blades’ son—and after land, a parcel of which he’s already bought off of Becker’s family-man brother.
The trouble is that apart from an obvious history of substance abuse, Nunez doesn’t provide any indication of what drives Becker to drink. His father is taciturn and not given to expressing his emotions; the closest he comes to confronting his mortality is when he tells his son, “You can no more prepare for death than you can for the arrival of a really bad fart,” then cuts an especially gnarly one. His son’s poetry is apparently meant to be a corrective, but the examples threaded through in voiceover don’t make it sound as if he’s too skilled at putting his feelings into words. (“These days, veils aren’t seen; they are implied.”) Apart from its title, there’s very little poetic about Spoken Word.