Audrey (Claire Armstrong) and Lillian (Naomi Skwarna), the protagonists of David Warth’s offbeat Canadian indie Dim The Fluorescents, are frustrated theater artists whose sole creative outlet comes in corporate training seminars—stark, tear-stained, hilariously misdirected mini-dramas on themes of customer service and workplace safety that they stage for the faint applause of white-collar workers. Lillian, an unproduced playwright, writes the scripts, giving Audrey, a brassy out-of-work actress, the more dramatic roles: the employee with a drinking problem, the difficult customer, the safety “don’t.” The two take their work a little too seriously. They dream of inviting Toronto’s premier theater critics to their planned magnum opus, “Leadership In Times Of Crisis And Change,” which they’ll be performing at an upcoming conference for mid-level managers hosted by Gary (Todd Graham, at once believable and very funny), a middle-aged executive who has asked them write in a role for his talentless teenage niece, Fiona (Andreana Callegarini-Gradzik).
Playing the off-kilter premise straight, Warth’s camera frames Audrey and Lillian’s boardroom-as-black-box performances like classically staged two-handers; he toes the line between mocking their theatrics (sample line: “Products have come to me damaged, Catherine. How do you explain such slipshod service?”) and saluting the duo as outsiders caught in the folie à deux of creative co-dependence. A partnership based on shared dreams of artistic success can turn into fantasy world; Lillian and Audrey are way past that point by the time we meet them. Dim The Fluorescents’ core story is familiar: a friendship undermined by a shot at success. But Warth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Miles Barstead (also responsible for the jazzy score), entangles it in ambitions, intentionally mannered performances, visual idiosyncrasies, and artificialities. The film is surprisingly long (over 2 hours) and eclectic, juggling dolly shots, split screens, dramatically timed pans and tilts, direct-to-camera addresses, and a whole lot of Steadicam. (Most of the climactic performance of “Leadership In Times Of Crisis And Change” is directed in an elaborate, uninterrupted Steadicam shot that runs about 10 minutes.)
The fact that Fluorescents has one foot planted in gray-cubicle corporate culture and the other in art-world jealousies gives Warth plenty of targets for satire, from easy visual gags about the banality of company training exercises (“Sexual Harassment In Progress,” reads the sign on one door) and very specifically Canadian parodies of vapid creative-class careerism (“I’m in London most of these days… the London,” declares an acquaintance at a party) to the godawful production of Euripides’ The Bacchae that introduces Fiona. But the first-time writer-director is after something more complicated in terms of drama, which moves into the foreground in the movie’s less overtly comedic (though still anti-realist) second half. It doesn’t completely get there, but as with Audrey and Lillian’s personal, overheated meditations on return policies and proper ladder handling, it’s hard not to be won over by the ambition. Arriving in the week before Sundance, Fluorescents’ showy camera moves and full-jazz-hands theater-kid dorkiness are a tonic against the excessively muted naturalism that has come to define indie style.