First, the full disclosure: I am personally acquainted with multiple people who worked on Moonshine Inc., especially including the director-writer-editor and the cinematographer. I leave it to you the reader to decide if I’m thus being too lenient, too hard, or just right. However, the bit where I claim “if I believed in reincarnation, I’d be inclined to wonder if the photography was a sign of the second coming of Karl Freund” can probably be ascribed to personal bias.
The creation of the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is one of the great moments in film criticism in the last ten years: it codified a trope that has sometimes though rarely been used brilliantly, and which has been with us, silently, for decades and decades – hell, you could stare me in the face and argue that there are MPDGs in Shakespeare, and I’d take you seriously for a moment. On the flipside, that moment when Nathan Rabin gave a name to the phenomenon, he seems to have given it a sickening kind of new life; and it kind of seems like you can’t make a romantic comedy from a male perspective anymore without running into one of the damned things.
Philip Crippen’s microbudget feature Moonshine Inc. is on paper another one of the many, many quirkycore indies with a raving MPDG at the center, as shall be quickly revealed via this plot synopsis: he, Cal (Levi Fiehler), is an aspiring hypnotherapist who has just moved to Los Angeles to reboot his life after some emotional setbacks that have left him seeking peace with the mantra “I will never fall in love again”. She, Win (Whitney Powell), is squatting in his apartment, making moonshine and waxing rhapsodic about how she will sell it to hipsters and jumpstart a new movement in boutique alcohol consumption. Also, her name is Win.
In practice, it’s not quite as simple as that, and not least because “selling hipsters moonshine ironically” isn’t quirky so much as it is distressingly plausible. Rather than trying to redeem the manic pixieness of the scenario by downplaying it, or treating it straight, Crippen goes nuts with it, and drags Powell with him; it’s largely her performance, which resembles one of those violent woodland creatures in a Tex Avery cartoon rather than an ostensible human being, and all for the good, that manages to shift Win from “impossibly darling and twee girl” to “borderline-insane person who is magnetic precisely because she is so obviously deranged”. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a parody of the whole conceit, but it makes a good stab at it.
It helps as well that Crippen doesn’t demand our love for his characters and situations, the way that so many quirky indie filmmakers do; nor does he make the opposite mistake of drifting too far into ironic distance, and thus becoming unbearably smug. It’s not as fine a line as all that – dozens of great comedies in the ’30s and ’40s were produced in exactly that margin, the great screwballs – but after so many unwatchable Wes Anderson clones, it’s pleasing to see one that mostly works.
“Mostly”; because outside of the central relationship between Cal and Win, a great deal of Moonshine Inc. strains more than it should. There are three supporting characters big enough to notice in the film – Cal’s deranged landlord Aki (Daniel Laney), a goofy actor named Tommy (Trevor Trout), and a tremendous bobblehead of an actress named Cookie (Molly Beucher) – and none of them gel very well. Aki in particular seems to have come from a different movie (Laney’s performance comes across somewhat like a bad improv artist given “smarmy yuppie” and told to build a scene out of it), and all three of the characters operate in a much lower, broader kind of humor than the weird but charming dialogue flying between the leads.
Visually, the film has the definite merit of not looking cheap; something that plenty of shot-on-video microbudget indies cannot claim (better still: the sound is pretty great, except for a spot here or there where it peaks a little too high). Slickly shot by Will Beckley, Moonshine Inc. moves comfortably from night to day, inside to outside, and through a nice array of color temperatures that keep the film’s tiny number of locations looking fresh every time. Then again, I’d be remiss in failing to mention the movie’s most howling flaw – even more than concluding that in 2010, we need more Manic Pixie Dream Girls – a weird visual flourish involving the use of crash zooms. It’s apparent enough what the idea behind it is – when Win is in control, everything is crazy! even the movie itself! – but it’s distracting as hell, and at times makes it nigh unto impossible to pay attention to the action onscreen.
I can’t honestly say that it’s more than cute, but Moonshine Inc. at least manages to dodge the major pitfalls of its subgenre (else it would have been infinitely less than cute). It might not put the stake in the MPDG’s heart, but at least it doesn’t make the viewer long for a quick death.
Finding a very different way to deal with the issues of presenting a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and making her something else than a reductive symbol of inhuman femininity and male privilege, the writers of Coasting, Michael P. Noens (who also directs) and David B. Grelck go the opposite direction, at least for a bit: commit entirely to the audience’s preconceived ideas of what a quirky romantic drama looks like, and then pull the rug out.
They also try to give the MPDG a bit more of her own backstory than the form typically allows. Lauren (Stephanie Wyatt) is a wedding photographer in Chicago, who has traveled one weekend to Stillwater, Illinois for the funeral of her boyfriend’s ex. Wes (Jonathan C. Legat) is a job placement specialist from Cincinnati attending the same funeral with his brother, another former lover of the deceased. Knowing absolutely nobody, they meet in a hotel bar one night and hit it off smashingly, but since they’re both in relationships, nothing happens. A year later, Wes is back in Stillwater for his grandfather’s funeral, and he bumps into Lauren in the same exact hotel bar; this time they act on their mutual attraction, except-UGH, fucking plot twists. It’s damn near impossible to make Coasting sound as interesting as it is without explaining what happens, but I am absolutely not going to do that. Let’s just say that their relationship becomes incredibly contentious and not just because they’re both cheating, and what started off as a twinkly dramedy about accidental soulmates turns into a peculiar, sometimes off-putting but absolutely fascinating study of the capriciousness and irresistability of romantic attraction
Classically speaking, Lauren isn’t necessarily a pixie; she lacks any quirky characteristics that would give her the bubbly edge of awfulness typical of the role. But she is functionally the type, particularly in the film’s first half: it’s Wes’s story, told mostly from Wes’s perspective, and it’s largely because of Lauren’s freedom of spirit that he learns to become a happier, more whole human being. Since the chief criticism of the MPDG is the way that the trope robs women of personality and agency, Coasting superficially qualifies.
Yet, the filmmakers muddy it a bit by also throwing in several Lauren-centric scenes – nowhere near as many as Wes gets, but still – and once again, the character is ultimately saved by a great performance. Wyatt digs deep into the character to fine desire and pain and confusion that aren’t necessarily present on the page, and the result is something damn close to a real, tactile woman, one who feels and thinks. Indeed, she pretty much ends up being more interesting than Wes (Legat’s performance is agreeable, but hardly revelatory).
Coasting doesn’t have much in the way of flair, perhaps; the dialogue feels very self-consciously Written, with characters stating things for our benefit and to push the plot forward clearly, even if the things they say aren’t always recognisable as human speech. It’s handsomely filmed, though; first-time cinematographer Danny Crook makes good use of an unexpectedly wide aspect ratio and the use of color throughout the film is moody and evocative without being obvious. It’s fairly simple, though, as is the film around it: a pointed character study that wastes the minimum effort possible on chasing down blind alleys, instead working to explore a central relationship that ought to feel contrived, but is instead compelling and disturbing in equal measure. It’s an unfussy film, but marvelously precise.