By Don Simpson | August 22, 2011
Director: Lawrence Michael Levine
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kate Kirtz
Starring: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Brooke Bloom, Kate Lyn Sheil, Louis Cancelmi, Amy Seimetz, Robert White, Lena Dunham
Gabi on the Roof in July begins as the titular 20-year-old Oberlin College undergrad, Gabi (Sophia Takal), arrives in New York City to spend summer break with her older brother, Sam (Lawrence Michael Levine). Sam, however, has presumably forgotten about Gabi’s visit and is otherwise occupied with his girlfriend, Madeline (Brooke Bloom). When Sam fails to pick up his sister, Gabi and her pet gerbil find their own way to Sam’s apartment — which, as luck would have it, is unlocked and vacant…other than a half-naked guy passed out in the bathroom.
Gabi’s “husband” Dory (Kate Lyn Sheil) comes to the rescue to assist Gabi with the unconscious man and Sam’s swarmy couch-surfing friend Garrett (Louis Cancelmi) arrives just in time to find the two young women struggling to drag Charles (Robert White) out from the bathroom. Ignoring his date (Lena Dunham) until she finally gathers enough gumption to leave, Garrett proceeds to chat up his newest sexual prey, Gabi.
When Sam finally arrives home the next day, he discovers his sexually provocative sister intimidating Charles with her vagina. A self-proclaimed “post-fluxus feminist“, sexual provocation and nudity seem to play a predominant role in Gabi’s persona; adopting the role as the mature and responsible older brother, Sam is uncomfortable with his younger sister being naked in the presence of his male roommates.
From there, Gabi on the Roof in July spirals into an intriguingly passive psychoanalysis of human relationships. Writer-director Levine never casts judgment on his characters, instead the audience is left to derive their own conclusions based upon each individual viewer’s personal history and sense of morality. Film critics are left to these very same devices, rendering them powerless to derive any absolute judgments about the characters in Gabi on the Roof in July — analysis of Gabi on the Roof in July is better suited for a psychiatrist than a film critic anyway.
The various personality types jockey for power as we are left to decide when the film’s characters are lying or speaking the truth. Levine’s directorial hand is omnipresent; manipulating our perspective, revealing to us only what he wants us to see. This technique is unbelievably effective when Sam disappears for a week and Levine purposefully provides Madeline and us with the same tight-lipped information about Sam’s whereabouts.
Despite his own personal faults, Sam plays the role of Gabi’s hyper-judgmental brother; he attempts to manipulate situations and people — specifically Gabi and Madeline — with sarcasm, cynicism, passive-aggressiveness and condescension. Sam repeatedly blames his cell phone battery for his mistakes; but when a past flame — Chelsea (Amy Seimetz) — enters the picture, Sam’s knack for lying and avoidance boil to the surface.
Sam and Gabi’s personalities are as different as their approaches to art. Sam is a traditional artist with a career ambition to create and sell art (he needs to pay the rent); he lives life as practically and responsibly as he plays Monopoly, with a very concrete rule structure. For Gabi, art is a personal [sexual] expression. Gabi does not believe in studios, specifically the commodification of art; she lives her life by bluntly rebelling against authority with in-your-face sexuality.
Channeling the improvisational techniques of Mike Leigh and John Cassevetes, Levine allowed the characters and script to grow organically through countless rehearsals. The result is an incredibly well-acted film drenched in natural emotions. Sounds a bit like “mumblecore”, huh? But, it is Levine’s steady and precisely sculpted mise-en-scène that truly differentiates Gabi on the Roof in July from the “mumblecore” genre.
Comparisons with Green, Sophia Takal’s directorial debut, are inevitable. Green features Takal, Levine and Sheil in lead roles — only the relationships [and directorial roles] are shuffled and the setting is one of displacement (New York City hipsters in West Virginia) rather than of slackeresque comfort. Takal and Levine both reveal a keen ability to delve into recessed areas of human psychology as they use the cinematic form to examine the complexity of human relationships. I am anxious to see where Takal and Levine will take their next directorial efforts.