By Erica Abeel
The Climb, directed by Michael Angelo Covino. At the Kendall Square Cinema, from November 13.
The terrific The Climb looks at bro-bonding in a way you’ve never quite seen.
“What do men want?,” as Freud never asked. The Climb, Michael Angelo Covino’s debut feature, has a thing or two to say on the subject, and through a series of deftly crafted episodes arrives at the conclusion that maybe what men want is, well, each other.
You’d think the genre termed bromance had been so thoroughly mined in American indie film the vein had run dry. But The Climb looks at bro-bonding in a way you’ve never quite seen. A hit at both Cannes (where it debuted in the prestigious sidebar Un Certain Regard) and Sundance, it mingles shrewd insights into masculinity with sophisticated lensing, ranging from long takes to stealthy Steadicam moves that turn the camera into a breathing presence and, at moments, the viewer’s co-conspirator.
The Climb follows the fraught friendship of Kyle and Michael, two ordinary dudes played by the actors themselves (Kyle Martin and Michael Angelo Covino), and was co-scripted by the duo and directed by Covino. Their misadventures are relayed through abrupt, titled chapters that range around in place and hopscotch over years so the viewer must play catch-up with wherever the story has landed, before it once again jolts forward. The Climb has a literary vibe, its chapters reminiscent of the currently trendy genre of linked short stories.
It opens on a dark screen to the sound of heavy breathing and the murmur of a male voice, suggesting we’re about to witness a sex scene. But hey, the filmmakers are just messing with us, and the camera picks up two bikers pedaling and panting up a challenging hill in what appears to be the South of France. This teasing misdirection is a signature ploy and part of how The Climb keeps the viewer enjoyably off balance.
As they struggle up the slope, Kyle, the schlubby, romantic one, announces he’s getting married to his French girlfriend Ava (Judith Godreche), who “loves me for who I am.” Michael, an expert biker and slightly ahead, tosses out that he’s been sleeping with Ava. When Kyle freaks out and yells with what breath he can muster that he’ll kill Michael, a modern “Judas,” Michael counsels him to switch gears as the incline grows steeper.
Both comic and excruciating, the vignette is captured in a long take, as a squadron of maniac French bikers zoom past, and the buddies’ trip culminates in an explosion of testosterone. Initially a short screened at Sundance, this opener was then built out into an extended journey, as alpha-male Michael continues to exert his toxic pull on pushover Kyle, through a funeral, a wedding, family gatherings, and a ski trip that veers drastically off piste.
Over time, fortunes are reversed, and Michael becomes an alcoholic slob, while Kyle gears up to marry old high school flame Marissa (Gayle Rankin, terrific). This time around, reversing himself from the first scene, Kyle loves Marissa because she pushes him to be something more than he is (and likely can never be)? During a holiday dinner with his extended family, Kyle’s over-solicitous mother (Talia Shire), suspicious of Marissa – who is indeed hard to read — enlists Michael to dissuade Kyle, drawing him back into Kyle’s orbit.
Throughout, it’s hard not to hate Michael. He’s self-seeking on steroids – “I’m a shitty person,” he says; “I don’t like me” — and has a habit of hitting on his buddy’s women that suggests, well, just what you think. The film doesn’t go there, proposing instead a knottier set of interlocking needs.
What makes The Climb so watchable is the chemistry of the principals, as they deliver fully realized portraits of two broken and vulnerable guys. Romances, weddings, wives come and go and are somehow peripheral. Women are ornamental. The bros are essential.
The film could hardly look and sound more American. It borrows from the mumblecore manner of the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg. The brilliant centerpiece features a pair of holiday dinners at the middle-class suburban home of Kyle’s family. The exterior is decked in Xmas lights and gauzy angels, dad’s in the kitchen butchering the turkey with an electric knife, the family, including grandma, huddles on the sofa in front of the telly to applaud a jingle Kyle wrote for some medication, complete with warnings of lethal side-effects.
Yet The Climb skews more European auteur than American sitcom, the preferred mode for similar scenarios. The French flavor is pervasive: the influence of Godard and, as stated in the press notes, Claude Sautet – with top-notes of Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund; on the soundtrack golden oldies from the likes of Gallic crooner Gilbert Becaud (that would be the envy of Wes Anderson).
The film goes in for gobsmacking ellipses that mock the logical transitions of conventional narrative. My favorite: at Xmas, Michael, wasted, crashes to the floor wearing the football helmet of his youth and all but pulls down the lighted tree. Cut to the next episode: elegant ski dancers in white, arabesque-ing down the slopes of Verbier or some posh resort, a saccharine French oldie on the soundtrack. Because of its shapeliness and aesthetic finesse, The Climb asks to be viewed as a movie, as opposed to the high-concept stories that play well on TV.
I’d watch The Climb a third time for the camera work alone (by super-talented Zack Kuperstein [The Eyes of my Mother]). It’s especially mesmeric – a character in its own right — as it stalks the house of Kyle’s family during Thanksgiving, peers into windows, snakes through rooms, while picking up Kyle’s clumsy efforts to get it right with his fiancée, along with the telling detail that nails each minor character. Inexplicably touching is the family’s tiny grandma, happy and utterly clueless, wedged between two beefy progeny on the sofa. She’s like a small incidental figure in the corner of a painting by Breugel that lingers in memory.
With its insights into the less inspiring byways of the male psyche, The Climb is very much a guy movie. Yet any woman who’s observed a bunch of dudes huddled together and cracking open the Bud Light while watching the 2020 playoffs between the Packers and the 49ers will “get” this film.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her most recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, will be published by Adelaide Books in September 2021.