A post-millennial copycat of grand, multi-threaded L.A. films like Short Cuts or Magnolia, Garden Party is bad, obnoxious and too short, in that order. There’s plenty of material here for a massive three-hour epic — indeed, the structure of multiple characters’ stories occasionally intersecting as they glide through the fabric of the city (which, ideally, evolves into a character all its own) practically demands butt-numbing length. However, Garden Party is so flawed that its short running time is a godsend.
The script raises some interesting (if not very original) thematic preoccupations with voyeurism, selling out, and the effects of class in the suburban sea of America’s dream factory. All three meet in April’s (Willie Holland) journey from her bathroom-peeping stepfather’s home to couch surfing at a differently creepy photographer’s studio. Sadly, her engaging pratfalls get sidelined by the embarrassingly clichéd exploits of emo-rocking space cadet Sammy (Erik Smith), and the castrating, Weeds-evoking (and porn-named) power broker Sally St. Clair, to whose story April gets stapled in the final rush for tidy resolutions.
There’s also Sally’s sexually undecided, latte-ordering assistant Nathan (Alexander Cendense), with his quarterback looks (he’s from Nebraska, of course) and a pot habit supported by the weed his boss grows to slip to her real estate clients (hence the Weeds connection). And, as in every suburban story, we have a midlife crisis-suffering husband in Todd (Richard Gunn), with his lackluster marriage and stalled artistic career. Gunn is terrible in this role (partly because half his lines come awkwardly dubbed), with his Keanu Reeves-level monotone.
In fact, most of the acting in Garden Party is sub-par, which, for a film set in film-land, is either a telling state-of-the-industry shortcoming or a muddled Brechtian move. Probably the former. The greatest scenes come between Nathan and April, when these two beautiful youngsters lost in a narcissistic sea of billboards and business cards try to make sense of their lives. Occasional charming dialogue can’t make sense of this jumbled mess, though, and the script’s crisp moments fade quickly into the surrounding noise.
Poor acting and uninspired writing aside, Freeland and cinematographer Robert Benavides keep things predictably (boringly) indie. Garden Party is all handheld long-ish takes with a couple scenes shot through gels and filters, gold- and blue-hued because, apparently, that’s what so-called independent American cinema “looks like” these days. Were all these problems fixed, we’d have a legitimate heir to the dystopic urban sweep of the aforementioned classics; instead we have another one for the trash heap, a film so unremarkable it’s rather a shame it was even made.