SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | March 29, 2011
Director: Clay Liford
Writer(s): Clay Liford
Starring: Nate Rubin, Alicia Anthony, Ryan Anderson, Jennifer Sipes
Meet Mitch (Nate Rubin), a meek and measly twerp of a high school English teacher (technically he is a substitute with a long-term assignment) who is known by some, including Assistant Principal, Wally Combs (Alex Karpovsky), as “Little Bitch”. Mitch allows himself to be teased, ridiculed and slapped around by every living being with whom he comes into contact, no matter their age or gender. The titular wuss, Mitch is an aspiring fiction writer who plays D&D (that is Dungeons and Dragons for those of you not in the know) with his high school friends and still lives at home with his mom and queen bitch of a sister (Jennifer Sipes). It is as if high school never ended for Mitch. Once a wuss, always a wuss…
Judging from Mitch’s very first English II class, it is quite obvious that the students will dictate the rules of the classroom with the school thug, Re-up (Ryan Anderson), leading the wolf pack. Mitch makes fast enemies with Re-up and thus sports a plethora of scars and bruises to prove it. Nonetheless, Mitch plows onward with his classes, discussing On the Beach, Dune, and the Bible (the first science fiction novel?). Enter Maddie (Alicia Anthony), a marching band student who takes a liking to Mitch and uses her remarkably powerful influence around school to protect him.
Though writer-director Clay Liford asserts that Wuss is not intended to carry any social or political significance, it paints a sharp critique of how high schools have evolved, with their metal detectors and overly “mature” student population. According to Liford, only a couple of students in Wuss are not authentic high school students (most notably the significantly older Cody Jones who plays Re-up’s sidekick, True Blood); most of the student population came directly from Garland High School (where Wuss was filmed).
Sure, on paper, the overall plot seems to be torn straight from a Hollywood script, but Liford unearths a profound intensity that lends Wuss a uniquely dire sense of realism, and I think this is mostly due to the incredible performances by Rubin and Anthony. While some of the supporting cast appear as purposefully clownish stereotypes, the characters of Mitch and Maddie never once veer away from being incredibly realistic…even as they smoke dope together while listening to the Alan Parson’s Project.
And whether it is to Liford or Rubin’s credit, Mitch is an incredibly empathetic wuss. Watching Rubin navigate each scene is like watching an indubitably naive horror film character who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, Mitch is different; we do not want him to suffer the wrath of any more pain, even though we are keenly aware that his next beating (be it verbal or physical) is always lurking in the shadows. Typically, cinema does not provide us with a wuss who is as endearing as Mitch; they are usually annoyingly stupid characters with few redeeming qualities. But Mitch seems like a perfectly nice guy; he is not stupid and apparently he is not a wuss by choice. Mitch’s supreme wussiness seems to be in his blood or part of his genes—there is no hope for him to ever escape it.
Another notable performance is Jonny Mars (The Happy Poet) as Maddie’s older brother. His scene with Rubin is one of the most intense and brutal of the film, yet Mars tosses some perfectly balanced humor into the mix making it all a wee bit darker.
As for some of the more seasoned veterans of the cast, Tony Hale (Arrested Development), as the high school band director, and Karpovsky (Lovers of Hate), they know how to play scenes with their own signature goofy absurdities, all the while sticking to the overall dark tone of the film.
When I first heard about Wuss, Liford’s follow-up to Earthling, one of my SXSW 2010 favorites, it seemed like such a drastic turn in subject matter. But while certainly more humorous than its predecessor (Earthling is as far from a comedy as cinema can get), Wuss still has plenty of dark and brooding undercurrents. And it turns out that Liford also has a killer knack for realistic representations of taboo student-teacher relationships.
Last but certainly not least, Wuss is a masterful work of sound and vision, clearly exceeding the production values of most independent cinema. Liford’s uniquely desaturated, nearly monochromatic aesthetic visually binds his two features together, while clearly separating himself from most other filmmakers. I bet if Wuss was produced in Hollywood, it would certainly include bright, cheery and over-saturated cinematography and a Billboard Top 40 soundtrack, but judging solely from Earthling and Wuss, that is not how Liford sees (or hears) the world.
(Also check out our video interview with Clay Liford from SXSW 2011.)