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‘Dean’ (review)

Produced by Giles Andrew, Elliott Watson,
Jessica Latham, Demetri Martin,
Charles James Denton
Written and Directed by Demetri Martin
Starring Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs,
Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen,
Reid Scott, Rory Scovel

 

When we think of summer movies, it is an array of explosions, aliens, fight scenes, and slapstick comedy.

So when the quietly funny and awkward character that Demetri Martin has made a career of embodying stars in a June release, it is a refreshing break from the action.

His directorial debut, Dean, is a film that asks us to take a moment to acknowledge that unpacking major life events may take more time to process than we would like to give.

As the titular character, Demetri Martin (who also wrote the script) is struggling with moving on from the death of his mother. His father (Kevin Kline) decides to sell the family home and becomes closer than expected to their real estate agent (Mary Steenburgen). Unable to address this, Dean flies to California under the pretense of illustrator. There he meets an interesting woman (Gillian Jacobs) who helps him run from his pain. Or is it the other way around?

The movie does a wonderful job exploring how these two men at different life stages handle their grief at losing the same woman. In real life Martin lost his father when he was younger, and you can see that this story plays in a very personal way while still feeling like fiction. Throughout the movie, there are scenes that transition with a voiceover from his mother; voicemails that he cannot bring himself to delete. It reinforces the holding pattern that the movie revolves around; in moving forward, we feel like something that is already gone forever will be real. That is a difficult subject to broach without becoming too heavy, but Martin and Kline manage to give the topic both respect and levity.

The father and son are apart most of the film, which allows us to see two distinctive stories.

Kline and Keener represent the first forays of a widower, awkward and unsure of how to proceed with romance and a new person. Martin is in his wheelhouse as a late-20s man that would rather push the grief away through a fling with a pretty girl than process his anxiety. We are treated to his unique style of drawings which punctuate key moments and focus on illustrating his relationship with death. It is a nice way to mix up the narrative, and feels integral instead of shoehorned in.

Both Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen move the men through their feelings by reminding them that life is still out there, occurring and happening whether or not they are ready to join in. Jacobs is very likable in a “girl I met on vacation” kind of way; a bit aloof and acting in the belief that nothing serious will come from this. The way that she commands all of their interactions while the awkward Dean seems more “along for the ride” is simple but it works for such a heartfelt film. Steenburgen is equally winning, as she feels out Kline’s character to see if he really is ready to start the next chapter in his love life. The characters are not shallow exactly; it is more like Martin reached the minimum amount of depth to create enjoyable characters and decided to leave us pleasantly floating there.

Kevin Kline always shines and this is no exception. His portrayal of a father and widower with an engineer’s emotional temperament comes together flawlessly. You may wish that Martin had pushed for more given his talented cast, but what he did get still makes a heartfelt film. The comedy is there but it is reminiscent of his standup – very self-aware, folded into scenes as throwaway one-liners or items mumbled because of the uncertainty of how it will land. It is a good balance for the strength he wrote into both female characters.

The grieving process will always be a trope the audience can relate to, and though summer is blockbuster season the possibility of tragedy is not bounded by calendar dates. Dean is a pleasantly old-fashioned outing that will require us in the audience to tune in instead of using a long sunny summer afternoon to tune out.

 

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