Film Review: “Out and About” — An Important Return to Filmmaking
By Gerald Peary
Indie films of worth made by people with talent are falling into the cracks, and that’s sadly the fate of Out and About, a smart, beautifully shot and acted movie by Peter Callahan.
Everyone agrees that it’s a dreadful time for independent feature films without Hollywood stars. Nobody will distribute them because of the belief, probably true, that nobody will pay to watch them, and certainly not at a theater. So films of worth made by people with talent fall into the cracks, into the abyss, and that’s sadly the fate of Out and About, a smart, beautifully shot and acted movie by Peter Callahan, a too-little-known filmmaker from New York state whom I’ve long admired. I am among the few who has seen all three of Callahan’s features spread out over 22 years: Last Ball (2001), Against the Current (2009), and now Out and About after Callahan’s unfortunate 14-year-absence from the screen.
Last Ball was invited to San Sebastian and Against the Current played at Sundance. And they established Callahan as not only a skilled director but, so rare in the indie world, a superlative screenwriter. So does anyone care about his important return to filmmaking? A few weeks ago, I got this Facebook message of quiet desperation: “My movie Out and About will be released on various VOD streaming platforms like Amazon and such next month [May], and we’re trying to get someone to actually watch the damn thing and write about it if they like it.”
Well, I liked it and so I’m writing about it. First I commend Callahan for having the guts to enthrall an audience with a virtually plotless movie. Jeff Fisher (Callahan), a middle-aged local, takes a long walk on a summer day through the streets of his mostly wealthy and suburban home town (Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, Callahan’s home town). He stops and talks to people he sees, those passing him on the sidewalk, those doing chores on their front lawns. He also comments in cynical voiceover about his fellow citizenry and thinks jealous thoughts about the privileged inhabitants of the town’s lavish stone mansions. Among those he meets up with are his one-time teenage squeeze, his high-school baseball coach, a thick-necked racist ex-football player, a blue-collar woman who can’t get his ironic commentary, and his remarried ex-wife, with whom he bickers on her lawn in front of her annoyed current husband. There is only one dramatic issue in the film and a tiny one: will Fisher’s daughter, who is away at college, honor his plea that she come home for her grandmother’s 80th birthday?
If a movie with zesty dialogue and vivid characters but no driving narrative could be a problem for some viewers, here’s a more serious, perhaps damning one in an age of multicultural PC. Out and About asks us to be in tune with a white, middle-aged, heterosexual protagonist who, despite his political liberalism, also harbors sexual thoughts about women and, in one scene, about a very young woman. In our unforgiving time, can Jeff Fisher be allowed to express impure male desires? And can it be understood that Peter Callahan the filmmaker might or might not endorse what Fisher thinks and does, even though he plays Fisher?
Hopefully, an audience will be placated by the uniformly great ensemble. Watching the film, I wasn’t sure if the people we see were actually Hastings-on-Hudson locals who were standing in front of their real homes. Nope, they are all professional actors. And though Out and About almost passes for an ingenious home movie, there are SAG thespians in the cast and a Teamsters crew and many people toiling behind the camera. Callahan cut some corners by farming out his film to New York’s Edit Center. Still, Out and About is an expensive film, and seemingly self-financed. With no distributor in sight to defray costs, no HBO or Netflix deal, Peter Callahan might, I worry, have to cease making films again. Such a loss for American independent cinema!
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston; ex-curator of the Boston University Cinematheque; and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema; writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty; and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His latest feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, has played at film festivals around the world.