Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 13 July 2009
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Stingray Sam was the very last film that I saw at IFFB, the end of a full day of movies, all of them documentaries or sober drama. Just before Stingray Sam’s showtime, I found myself tearing across Harvard Square, press pass flapping comically in the wind, and finally collapsing in a seat in the back row of the Brattle Theatre after the lights had gone down but just before the movie began. I was exhausted and ready for something completely different. I had come to the right place.
From writer-director-star Cory McAbee, who filled those same three roles for 2001’s cult item The American Astronaut, Stingray Sam is unapologetically out there, a fusion of American sci-fi serials, movie musicals, and westerns with an absurd sense of humor and a grubby sense of goodwill. It opens on Mars, which McAbee imagines as something like Las Vegas a little ways off the strip, a place of “forgotten people with scattered dreams” where our eponymous hero performs his lounge act while a few bored-looking dancers gyrate vaguely. But before you can say “loopy rescue mission,” Stingray Sam is presented with one. His former partner, The Quasar Kid, turns up and explains that a little girl needs rescuing, and the pair of them will benefit if they can pull it off. There’s heaps more exposition, much of it provided by droll narrator David Hyde Pierce (whose entertaining pronunciation of the interstellar place name “Durango” maybe worth the price of admission all on its own) and illustrated with amusing animated collages, and the convolution is part of the fun.
Stingray Sam is at its best during its goofy musical numbers, particularly the raucous “Stingray” (about a man who is pregnant with the creature of the title) and the ridiculous “Lullaby,” which has just the right loud-quiet-loud structure to wake you up every thirty seconds or so. (It is true that the song “Fredward,” which catalogs a series of children spawned by pairs of men and named for both fathers goes on just a bit long.) McAbee and his co-star – billed simply as “Crugie” – give the kind of broad, game performances that the material calls for, and McAbee shares a truly sweet chemistry with the film’s rescued little girl, probably because she’s played by his own young daughter, Willa Vy McAbee.
The whole affair is buoyed by its exuberant strangeness and a charming handmade quality—it wears its low budget on its sleeve. Stingray Sam was made with new media in mind – it was designed to be viewed on mobile phones and is divided into episodic chunks, both as homage to its movie serial roots, and presumably, as a concession to its intended distribution model – but it seems a shame to imagine someone watching this alone on a subway train, with no one else to share in McAbee’s distinctive brand of madness. When the film screened at the Brattle, a portion of the audience had begun singing along with the titular theme song by the second of its many airings. That kind of midnight movie playfulness feels like just the right kind of reception for Stingray Sam.
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