The Guatemalan Handshake Review

Todd Rohal’s debut feature is the latest small, little-known US independent film to get the Benten Films deluxe DVD treatment and it’s the first of the three titles released so far that isn’t part of the “mumblecore” movement favoured by the distributor. I keep going back to Benten’s mission statement on their website however, and their intent “uncover lost masterpieces and future classics, with an eye on overlooked gems that deserve greater recognition”, and The Guatemalan Handshake certainly meets that remit. The winner of the Special Jury Prizes at Slamdance and the Torino Film Festival, Todd Rohal’s first feature is closer to what you might expect to find in a US independent cinema – eccentric, small-town characters, losers and geeks looking for a key that will help them understand the world or at least fit into it better – but that’s about the only level on which you could pigeonhole this otherwise delightful and unpredictable film.

Quirky characters? Oh, yes – there are plenty of those and they all have unusual, funny names and characteristics to match. From Ethel Firecracker (Kathleen Kennedy), an elderly lady who is looking for her missing dog only to find news of her own funeral in the local paper’s obituary column, to Spank Williams (Cory McAbee), the suicidal children’s television presenter whose planned leap from a nearby cliff is an enduring memory in the minds of the now grown-up townsfolk. Principally however, many of the eccentricities that befall the Pennsylvanian community all seem to start when Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham) disappears right around the time of an electricity outage caused by an incident at the town’s nuclear powerplant, an event that also seems to be connected with the disappearance of Ethel Firecracker’s little dog. Concerned about Donald’s disappearance, his pregnant girlfriend Sadie (Sheila Scullin), comes looking for him at the country house of his father (Ken Byrnes), where Donald’s ten-year old best friend Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood) is spending the summer, mixing with the scouts at a nearby camp. Sadie’s sister however tries to hook her up with Stool (Rich Schreiber), a rather awkward young man who can’t seem to hold down a job, not even as an employee at a roller rink.

There is little really draws these characters together other than Donald’s disappearance, but The Guatemalan Handshake doesn’t even make that the main narrative device in the film, or at least it has no greater importance than his small, unusual electrical car which is passed from owner to owner, or the pet turtle with which he is identified. At the same time these features are all important in providing the film with an alternative to narrative structure through its mood and own unique cinematic language. Cinema is primarily a visual medium, but in seeking to find some kind of narrative purpose or connection between the characters, it’s all too easy to miss how extraordinarily beautiful a film The Guatemalan Handshake is and how cleverly it uses those qualities to depict the world its characters inhabit. And it’s within their relationship to the world around them, knocked slightly but not significantly off-centre by Donald Turnupseed’s disappearance, that the film’s strengths and meaning can be found.

For all its apparent off-the-wall characteristics and the exaggerated eccentric behaviour of its characters, Todd Rohal nevertheless manages, with deceptive light-heartedness and humour, through songs, images and their interconnectivity, to capture a sense of inner realism, of how people think, act and relate to one another. Donald’s disappearance may not seem to cause any of the expected deep concern either with his father, pregnant girlfriend or young friend as they move on towards taking part in a demolition derby, but his presence is pervasive throughout the film (in no small part down to the presence of cult figure and singer Will Oldham, also seen recently in Old Joy), and in its idiosyncratic exploration the mixture of reminiscence, reverie and loss of direction felt by each of the characters, the film finds a more meaningful way to explore the sense of confusion felt over the loss of someone important or influential in their lives than in the following of a conventional missing person narrative. Through its own cinematic language, it touches on those sensations, emotions and behaviours within people and in the way that they relate to one another – awkwardly, hesitantly, not comfortably or neatly, and not always in the way we would have chosen, but complementary for all our differences.


The Guatemalan Handshake is released in the US as a 2-disc set by Benten Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, with additional extra features on a second dual-layer disc. The set, beautifully packaged and slipcased with designs by Oscar-nominated animator James Braithwaite, is in NTSC format and is not region encoded.

I’ve only one complaint with the transfer - it’s interlaced. So far, the titles released by Benten have been digitally sourced, and this doesn’t seem to have been an issue, so it’s a little bit disappointing that this 35mm sourced film hasn’t been given a progressive transfer. It’s not a major problem, showing up as only the occasional jerkiness in movements on a regular CRT television screen, but progressive displays may show more obvious blurring and bobbing in movement and especially on camera pans. There may also be some minor flickering caused by compression artefacts. Otherwise the image looks fantastic. It’s presented anamorphically at a ratio of 2.35:1, the colours simply glowing with rich, warm tones and the image perfectly clear and sharp throughout. Some minor dust spots can be seen on the print, but not to any great extent.

There is a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and both are reasonably good. Due in part to the recording I presume, dialogue isn’t always the clearest – it’s a little muffled and low in places and not greatly dynamic, but it performs well for the most part.

Optional English subtitles are provided, which can be referred to on the fly if any of the dialogue, or accents, aren’t entirely clear. The font is white, but over-large. As they occasionally stretch over the boundaries of the image, even on a screen with no overscan, it’s possible that this is a minor presentation flaw.

Director Commentary
Accompanied by a number of the production and filmmaking crew, the director’s commentary manages to stay fairly well on-track most of the time, but is inevitably largely anecdotal and related to what is happening on screen – how it was prepped and shot, what is happening on and off the screen, and some background on how the actors were cast, but it’s never deep or explanatory. With a focus on the lighting, the location, the sets and what the actors bring to the roles however, it’s an appropriate commentary since it’s through these elements that the film comes to life.

Deleted Scenes
Twelve deleted scenes are included, running to just less than twenty minutes. They expand on the film’s little universe somewhat as well as experiment a little with other techniques in the editing, music and mood. Excellent, and well worth viewing. The presentation is letterboxed, but at the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and of reasonably good quality.

Ola Podrida Music Video
This is a music video for Ola Podrida’s “Lost & Found”, directed by Todd Rohal, which other than starring Ivan Dimitrov, doesn’t seem to be directly related to the film. The director clearly has fun with the digital editing tools though.

10 Moments From the Set of The Guatemalan Handshake
A collection of featurettes, running to about 53 minutes long, cover incidental behind-the-scenes incidents, casting sessions, interviews and on-set filming. Like the film, they are delightfully random and often funny. In particular, a radio interview with the director with a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills, is good and informative.

4 Moments From the Road with The Guatemalan Handshake
This section follows the various promotional stunts and live musical events that accompanied the film, filmmakers and cast across a number of US cities and international festivals. The four parts run to over 20 minutes, the last piece being made up of stills and music.

6 Short Films, directed by the cast and crew
There’s quite a variety to the films included here, made by and starring some familiar faces from The Guatemalan Handshake. They’re fairly diverse, some improvisational, some experimental, some just having fun with the medium, but there’s no hidden gems here, and some of them string a limited idea on just too long. It’s a pity a few of Todd Rohal’s earlier short films couldn’t have been included here instead.

The package is rounded off with an essay by filmmaker David Gordon Green, who expresses his admiration for Rohal and his pleasure at such a film even being made, never mind so successfully.

Outwardly and in terms of what is expected from a US indie comedy of quirky smalltown life, The Guatemalan Handshake seems slightly more conventional than the films released thus far by Benten Films, but through its humour and originality, through its non-professional actors and eccentric characters, through its sense of location and how those characters relate to each other through their environment, it’s as strong and subtly insightful about human nature, behaviour and its relationship with the modern world around it as Joe Swanberg’s LOL or Aaron Katz’s Quiet City & Dance Party, USA. It’s consequently not a film to think about too deeply, but one that, if the viewer is willing to be accepting of the strangeness of the characters and slip into their world, rewards with no little amount of humour and beauty. Barring a few minor issues with the transfer, Benten Film’s latest lavish 2-disc release is another winner.

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