Just as independent cinema devolves into a string of cutesy quirk-fests containing no recognizable human behavior, along comes Todd Rohal's debut feature The Guatemalan Handshake, to serve as a crucible rather than an alternative. Viewers will either walk away from the film thinking that Rohal has set a new benchmark for how obnoxiously twee movies can get, or they'll see Rohal's goofy flights of imagination as proof that most modern indies aren't quirky enough.
Eschewing restraint, Rohal fills The Guatemalan Handshake with small-town naïfs in shabby clothes, living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, where they obsess over pet turtles, electric cars, and demolition derbies. Will Oldham plays a lumpen, mumbly outsider who disappears one day after a power outage, and when his friends and family ask around about him, they get embroiled in a variety of strange occurrences. A woman reads her obituary in the paper, then attends her own funeral. The grubby, unemployable town lothario goes on a series of dates that usually end with him shirtless, nauseous, or both. And the tiny, triangular electric car Oldham borrowed from his dad passes from person to person, never quite fitting anyone's lifestyle.
It's pointless to get upset about Rohal's vision of small-town America as one big asylum for horribly unfashionable dolts, because The Guatemalan Handshake isn't about any genuine place or type. It takes place in the same grotesque dream world where filmmakers like Harmony Korine and David Lynch have set up shop, although Rohal's take on nightmarish Americana isn't as pretentious or oblique, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Rohal aims for surprised laughter more than mind-bending weirdness, and while he doesn't hit the bull's-eye that often, he keeps firing, loading up a new visual gag or outlandish scenario every few minutes. He's clearly got ideas to spare, and one day, he may turn them into something magical. The Guatemalan Handshake, though, is more like the snack one of its characters eats: a chocolate bunny, filled with chocolate milk, topped with chocolate syrup.
Key features: A laid-back Rohal/cast/crew commentary and a couple of hours' worth of offbeat behind-the-scenes home movies that will either make Rohal and company seem all the more endearing, or all the more irritating.