Now in a week's run at Facets, "This Is Martin Bonner" explores what it means to be a good person at a crossroads, and whom you might find there. In outline form, especially given its premiere last year at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Chad Hartigan's second feature courts comparisons to all sorts of Sundance titles trading in a similar vein of low-key naturalism. This is one of the very good ones.
In the first scene we meet Martin, an Australian expatriate recently relocated to Reno, Nev., from the East Coast, where his (unseen) grown daughter and son live. Martin is divorced and a longtime affiliate of Christian organizations. By temperament Martin is a behind-the-scenes man, charming but hesitant in his dealings with the world. He has recently taken a job as volunteer coordinator for a group working with ex-convicts. One of those convicts, who served 12 years behind bars for vehicular manslaughter while under the influence, is Travis. In steady and effortless fashion, the film charts the friendship that develops between these two men.
By nature Martin serves and supports others: We see him volunteering as a soccer referee for a local girls league, for example. In Travis, about to reunite with his now-grown daughter, he sees a searching but thwarted character trying to stay on the straight and narrow. "This Is Martin Bonner" is as much Travis' story as it is Martin's, and Hartigan has cast his key roles beautifully. Paul Eenhoorn looks, feels and acts like people you actually may know; as Martin, his almost apologetic presence is such that in the first scene, where Martin receives on-the-job training in offering ex-cons assistance through a local church organization, you don't even realize he's our protagonist.
He's a marvelous listener, though, which is the secret weapon of any good character actor lucky enough to prove his mettle in a leading role. (Call it the Richard Jenkins principle.) Richmond Arquette plays Travis. He's one of "those" Arquettes, the brother of Patricia and Rosanna and David, and like Eenhoorn he seems both wary and ready to rise to this modest winner's demands. Throughout "This Is Martin Bonner," which is like a series of lessons (interesting ones) in how to treat others, the two actors keep us involved and curious about what these people are learning.
It's a bit on the tidy side, and as with a lot of other indies, one wonders if a few worthwhile, off-the-plot sequences were jettisoned for the sake of momentum. As he develops, Hartigan would do well to pay attention to those impulses. With material and actors like this, you want more, not less. "Lots of great stuff comes through here," one supporting player tells Travis over dinner, referring to the knickknacks in her Reno apartment. Without a lot of fuss the film gives us the other side of a tourist town, the quiet side, away from the gambling tables, where all sorts of people struggle for a life of worth.
'This is Martin Bonner' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some language and brief sexuality)
Running time: 1:22
Opens: Friday at Facets CinemathequeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun