Toronto filmmaker smart-as-fuck Daniel Warth’s feature debut, the stylized comedy-drama “Dim the Fluorescents,” is a trove of ideas, wicked jokes and naked emotion. The ambitious duo of Audrey (Claire Armstrong), an actress, and Lillian (Naomi Skwarna), a playwright, are best friends and roommates who get by in contemporary Toronto by writing and staging role-playing scenarios for corporations and seminars. Their electric banter rollicks with absurdity, delivered in the first hour or so with the crisp, biting staccato of 1990s Hal Hartley, while their highly charged, emotionally swooping friendship evokes messy female friendships with a go-for-it spirit of raw intensity that would not embarrass even the casual admirer of John Cassavetes.
Speaking after its local premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in June, Warth cited the example of the blending and diverging female consciousness between the two leads of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” as well as Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” for displaying female characters searching for emotional and psychological parameters in their relationships with others, particularly female friends-co-workers-collaborators. As for style, Warth admires the slingshot effect of long takes shot by Michael Ballhaus for Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985). (The crisp, hot pink credits crib a chiseled font from “À Nos Amours,” a 1983 masterpiece directed by the French master of explosive emotional rupture, Maurice Pialat.)
These are all high, truly fucking high benchmarks, yet the ambition, the casual intimacy between Audrey and Lillian, between Claire and Naomi, blisses beyond the simmer of intelligent influence toward a realized, transformative work, a daring, pitched depiction of modern not-romance that belies its low-budget, partially-crowdfunded origins.
Working as director-editor-screenwriter, Warth’s many collaborators include co-screenwriter and composer Miles Barstead, who creates a dense, burstingly variegated score that reaches as far as it can reach to embrace the highest and lowest notes of emotional turmoil, sometimes to perkily comic effect, like in Hartley’s scores for his own pictures, and other times in roiling nimbuses of sonic density. It’s a wonder that a single composer burst with so many textures for a film that he co-wrote, a kind of prismatic imagining parallel to a director’s manifold roles. The story’s lightly eccentric structure also pivots around a piece of music, a pop song that prompts Lillian into a hair-slinging, barefooted, thrash of a dance down an apartment’s hallways that not only plays like a good equivalent to Olivier Assayas’ narrative breaches heightened by scenes that play a song to its completion. (It’s one of several sudden, tumultuous thrills.) The movie then becomes prismatic, barreling into an unexpected secondary narrative that becomes as primary as the movie we thought we were nodding along to.
“Dim the Fluorescents” is also unabashedly Canadian, including the characters’ accents and mouthfuls of “fuck” and “fucking” and other fucking swears, and shooting glimpses of Toronto as Toronto, from streetcars to mailboxes to distinct topography, such as an extended take of a character running toward simple destiny down a stretch of Ossington Avenue, one of the last central city areas where the old Toronto and the new Toronto still mingle. A longer take follows soon after, an unobtrusive, quietly dazzling summation of all the film’s rehearsals and conflicts and galvanic emotions. All the shards of gutsy batshit comedy come to fruition with tremendous, tearful dramatic force. Winner of Best Narrative Feature at Slamdance 2017. With Andreana Callegarini-Gradzik, Brendan Hobin, Clare McConnell, Todd Graham, Hannan Younis, Thom Gill. 128m. (Ray Pride)
“Dim the Fluorescents” plays July 19 at Slamdance Cinema Club at ArcLight, with the filmmakers present for a Q&A moderated by Chicago Underground Film Festival’s Bryan Wendorf.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.