You might get the impression that Gretchen is an US independent in the mould of Juno or Napoleon Dynamite, a dryly witty comedy of awkward adolescents struggling to get through high-school relatively unscathed, desperately looking for that first love, or at least someone to go with to the prom – and you’d be right. Gretchen does indeed feature a socially inadequate high-school character in an unhappy family environment, and the film does lead up to a prom night conclusion, all of which means that Gretchen needs to be a little bit special or original in its observations if it is to avoid the predictable trajectory of such films. Happily Texas director Steve Collins manages to do just that in his first feature, while losing none of the comedy and recognition embarrassment factor than makes it all a little more meaningful and universal.
Unlike the typical nerd or geek that you find in a high-school drama in direct opposition to the jocks and the cheerleaders, perhaps the only social inadequacy that Gretchen (Courtney Davis) possesses is that she is just too sweet, too innocent and too trusting for this world. Rather plain to look at and not blessed with any great dress sense, Gretchen’s beauty is however invisible to the eye, and she hasn’t quite got to grips with how to handle those deep welling emotions she holds inside. Expressed in English essays, those feelings are deemed “purple prose” by her teacher, and thus not suitable for everyday public consumption. Despite Gretchen’s simplicity, innocence and innate goodness, those feelings are also unfortunately misdirected towards the bad boys – bad boys like Ricky (John Merriman). Of course, bad boys aren’t exactly known for their fidelity, and that’s where Gretchen’s troubles start.
Unaware that she is doing anything wrong, since love brings out the finer feelings in her and that it’s only natural to follow those feelings wherever they take you, Gretchen is however unable to see anything wrong with her actions, and thereafter embarks on a repetitive cycle that isn’t going to lead her anywhere good. Specifically, it leads her in the direction of her missing father (Stephen Root). And indeed, when she finally encounters her absent father (it’s hard to imagine a more disheartening and inauspicious situation than the one depicted here), the uncanny resemblance that he bears to all the useless bums Gretchen has been dating points in a way to the underlying cause of all those conflicted emotions within the young woman. It’s that kind of detail that distinguishes Gretchen – the resemblance being obvious in a funny way (the long locks are clearly wigs), while at heart revealing something important and relevant that helps define character and make it more real, and therefore meaningful.
If the pacing and delivery then are unconventional and not the obvious way to hold one’s attention in a film – the surreal dead-pan may not work for some people – this low-key quality is nonetheless an appropriate and effective technique that works to the film’s character and purpose. That’s not to say that the film is slight or without substance. On the contrary, it’s concise – never dwelling over a scene or in establishing a situation, a mood or a sentiment, but representing it through a jarring jump cut to a single brief almost surreal image without all the usual establishing and explanatory paraphernalia around it. None of that purple prose stuff. An encounter in the ladies toilets between Gretchen and her rival for the affections of Ricky for example is followed by a look of shock and a ride to an ambulance that amply testifies to the confrontation that has occurred without any need to show it, while a discarded burger-store shirt with a name-tag on it is an image that says more about abandonment than a thousand frames, or indeed any false justification that can be made by a worthless father.
Which is all a very original way to play down the romantic melodrama of what essentially is an in-depth look at one particularly sensitive young woman’s emotional journey through adolescence. Those simple glances, expressions and gestures say as much if not more than what is said, while what is said in those few simple direct dialogues is only that which is wonderfully necessary, truthful and funny. Like any good US indie high-school drama, Gretchen captures that same sense of helplessness, inarticulacy and inadequacy of the adolescent’s awkward physicality that is unable to express the beautiful person inside, and like the best of its kind, it finds this fertile ground for humour without being unnecessarily cruel to its characters. What Gretchen excels at however, is how it manages to express through colour, composition, score and structure, the dreams, delusions and disappointments of their emotional inner lives, making it not just a delightful comedy, but a more rounded and perceptive look at what it means to be human.
Gretchen is released in the USA by Watchmaker Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in NTSC format. The disc is not region coded.
Other than the fact that the film is transferred letterboxed at a ratio of 1.75:1, without anamorphic enhancement, the image quality is virtually flawless. The image is clear, with no significant marks whatsoever, the transfer stable and free of flicker. The colouration is lovely, nicely saturated with wonderful black tones that show excellent shadow detail and definition. A light level of grain, impressively handled by the encode, the richness of the tones and some pinkish skin-tones are the only indication that the film was shot on Super-16, as the visible detail and gradation of colour is excellent, rarely showing any softness even in darker scenes and wide shots. It’s doubtful then that anything would be gained from widescreen enhancement. A future Blu-ray edition from Watchmaker is on the cards however, which will be nice to see, but my experience of High Definition transfers of 16mm-shot films is that there will be very little improvement in detail or clarity over this letterboxed Standard Definition release.
The audio track for the low-budget film is inevitably straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and this is more than adequate for the nature of the film. The volume is a little bit low which means that Gretchen’s softly-spoken voice can be a little bit muffled in one or two places (and there are no HOH subtitles here to assist) – but generally this is not a problem for the majority of the film. The tone is warm and clear, with reasonable depth and dynamic, and lively when it needs to be (as in the rave scene).
The film is in English, so there are no subtitles on this edition and, regrettably, no Hard of Hearing options.
The film is supported by three short films – Lonelyland (15:23), Gretchen and the Night Danger (26:42) and Gretchen and the Wolf Wizard (23:25). Made between 2002 and 2004, the development of the character and her worldview is honed to near perfection across the three films, expressing the inner world and emotional make-up of Gretchen through a variety of techniques, some of them a little experimental. All of them are wonderfully funny and stand up well on their own, retaining the same delightful sense of absurdity as the main feature. Shot on DV, the films all look and sound fine in a variety of presentations - Lonelyland in 1:33:1 ratio, Gretchen and the Night Danger anamorphic 1.78:1, and Gretchen and the Wolf Wizard letterboxed 1.78:1. Each of the films comes with an optional commentary by director Steve Collins.
A 16 page booklet of essays and interviews is also included, with an introduction to the film by Mark Rance on the approach of putting raw emotions onto the screen; a piece by Jon Robertson, following this theme by looking at how Gretchen compares to Demme and Lubitsch more than the young indie filmmakers; and recollections by the director Steve Collins on the origins and inspirations of the project, and how it all came together despite the difficulties and limitations of making a low-budget indie. There is also a conversation between Spencer Parsons and the director on his approach to cinema as it is seen developed across his short films.
Did I mention that Gretchen is a very funny film? Just wanted to make it clear that even though a film can realistically explore character detail, play around with the conventions of the indie high-school adolescent drama and with the rules of filmmaking narrative in order to bring out something truthful about the characters and their place in the world, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be funny as well. The development of how this approach came about can be seen in the delightful short films that accompany and support the main feature, the extras a fine addition to the excellent transfer and presentation of the film by Watchmaker.